These are challenging times for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. His forces in the Senate have dropped from 49 to 41. Big government is all the fashion in Washington. And Republicans are losing market share. But at this week’s CPAC he showed little pessimism and plenty of the steely strategic skills which have been his trademark.
His remarks before a packed house on Friday morning offered a heavy dose of tough love. He recounted the damage done by two election wipeouts — no senators on the west coast, no New England congressman, and huge sections of America now under a Democratic governor. His message: Republicans need to seek out voters who were Republicans and “get them to take a second look.” He noted that the very wealthy, the very poor, and minorities have been lost, and he repeated Ronald Reagan’s admonition: “Many Hispanics are Republicans — they just don’t know it.”
The heart of his speech, however, was policy rather than pure politics. On Guantanamo, he mocked Attorney General Eric Holder who recently visited the facility, pronounced it professionally run, and then repeated the Obama policy that it must be closed and all the detainees moved. The administration, McConnell said, must answer a key question: “Where exactly do you expect to send these guys?” After the audience offered some suggestions (Alcatraz, for example) he answered his own query: “They ought to be right there in jail in Guantanamo.”
Most of his ire was reserved for the Democrats’ renewed infatuation with big government, 1970s style liberalism — which, he said, needs to take its place “next to bell bottoms and leisure suits.” He reiterated that in a single month Obama has spent more than George W. Bush did in seven years on two wars and Katrina. He showed nothing but disdain for the proposed budget, pointing out that it “double dipped” on 122 programs already in the stimulus bill. His central theme: we should not expand government and hand the bill to our children.
McConnell is best known for his legislative prowess but the crowd ate it up, and the fiery determination to oppose card check, Guantanamo closing, and a huge expansion of the federal government, was greeted enthusiastically.
In a question and answer session with a small group of bloggers following his speech, McConnell did not shy away from painful truths. “Forty-one is not as much as 49,” he explained in response to a query about how to keep wayward senators in the fold after three defected to support the stimulus plan. “Elections have consequences. We are paying the price for the second bad election in a row.” He explained that he has a “diverse conference” and no longer has the luxury of losing several senators in order to maintain a filibuster.