Mitch McConnell and the “Republican brand”

TL;DR: Mitch McConnell feels threatened by principled conservatives and feels that they’re ruining the “Republican brand” by challenging him and other establishment Republicans. But really, the “Republican brand” is in shambles, and it’s time to re-define that brand to return to small-government principles.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) isn’t a happy camper these days. He’s locked in both a contentious primary and general election fight, losing rule battles against his Democratic counterpart, and has to contend with some members of his own party who are constantly willing to stand on principle, rather than the party line.

“The ‘Republican brand’ was severely damaged several years ago. That was largely due to dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush, an unpopular war, and corruption in Congress.”

The rise of the Tea Party movement and conservative organizations have created havoc for McConnell and Republican leadership in the chamber, who enjoyed mostly distant rumblings from the political right in the past. But over the last few months, there has been a tiff between the Kentucky Republican and the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) that has now boiled over into the public.

McConnell recently gave an interview to the Washington Examiner, a conservative-leaning publication, in which he slammed the Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC founded in 2008 by then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), for its role in targeting Republican senators in primary races.

“There were people who were basically afraid of [conservatives], frankly,” said McConnell in reference to the mood of Republicans before and during the government shutdown. “It’s time for people to stand up to this sort of thing.”

“The Senate Conservatives Fund is giving conservatism a bad name. They’re participating in ruining the [Republican] brand,” McConnell told the Washington Examiner. “What they do is mislead their donors into believing the reason that we can’t get as good an outcome as we’d like to get is not because of a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president, but because Republicans are insufficiently committed to the cause — which is utter nonsense.”

It should be noted that the Senate Conservatives Fund, one of the conservative groups that backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the “defund Obamacare” push, endorsed McConnell’s Republican primary challenger, Matt Bevin, shortly after the government shutdown ended. That led to an escalation in the already existing war of words between the group and McConnell, who was critical of Cruz and those pushing the defund strategy.

Ben Sasse, a Republican Senate candidate in Nebraska, was endorsed by the Senate Conservatives Funds. That, apparently, didn’t sit well with McConnell. He reportedly “lit into” Sasse in a face to face meeting for working with the organization and demanding in a campaign video that Republicans in the chamber, including the Minority Leader, “show some actual leadership.”

The Senate Conservatives Fund later blamed McConnell for the partial elimination of the filibuster in the Senate, claiming that it was his “weakness” that led to the Reid’s push for the unprecedented change.

There is some legitimate criticism of the Senate Conservatives Fund. Let’s face it, the “defund Obamacare” strategy wasn’t going anywhere because Republicans don’t hold a majority in the chamber. Even if they did control the Senate, President Obama was never going to sign any measure to defund his onerous, unworkable law.

What’s more, the government shutdown, a result of the defund strategy, set Republicans back in with the public, and the negative perception that Americans have of the GOP still lingers in the polls, though, they have managed a led in recent generic ballot surveys, thanks to Obamacare’s collapse.

With that said, however, conservatives have been longing for, you know, actual, principled leadership for years, something that McConnell has failed to produce. Does that legitimize the defund strategy? No, it doesn’t. But it speaks to the frustration that many in the conservative movement have with the Republican establishment.

That brings us back to McConnell’s comments to the Washington Examiner. He said that the “Senate Conservatives Fund is giving conservatism a bad name” and is “participating in ruining the [Republican] brand.”

What does that even mean? What is this “Republican brand”?

The “Republican brand” was severely damaged several years ago. That was largely due to dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush, an unpopular war, and corruption in Congress.

Additionally, Republicans, who campaign on a limited government message, governed like big spending Democrats. Remember, the GOP claims the be the party of fiscal responsibility. But despite holding control of Congress for much of his presidency, Bush became the biggest spender since Lyndon Johnson.

When Republicans were in control, Congress passed bloated budgets and expanded Medicare, which was already a broken, unsustainable entitlement program. They loaded up on earmarks in appropriations bills and passed farm bills packed with corporate welfare. This is just touching the surface, folks.

Even in the minority, many Republicans in the Senate, including McConnell, voted for TARP, a taxpayer-funded giveaway to Wall Street.

That brings us to another problem with the “Republican brand.” Americans view Republicans as being in the pocket of corporations and being willing to act on what they want before the rest of the country.

It’s a reason that voters rejected the “Republican brand” in 2012. They looked at Mitt Romney, who has a corporate background, and were immediately skeptical. To be sure, the perception of Romney was unfair, but he didn’t do himself any favors.

Some, like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), are working to change this perception, but too many Republicans remain in the pockets of special interests, which is unfortunate.

Perhaps McConnell should define the “Republican brand.” Because if it’s repackaged Bush-era, big government, “compassionate conservatism” that cost Republicans control of Congress, then they might as well call it a day. Voters rejected that before, and they’ll do it again.

If it’s “Republican brand” that fails to coalesce around policy ideas to counter the Obama Administration, that may win an election next year, but it’s not sustainable into 2016. What’s more, alienating the conservative/Tea Party base of the GOP, people who drove the 2010 takeover of the House, may not be the best strategy.

Republicans are right on many issues facing the country. But being right only goes so far if they stray away from the principles on which they’re elected. Politics do, indeed, matter, and that shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

But the damage to the “Republican brand” — whatever McConnell meant by that — was there long before the government shutdown. Disagree with the strategy and tactics of groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund all you want, and there are plenty of good arguments against the defund strategy, but Republicans in Washington have created this problem because they failed to live up to their rhetoric, time and time again.

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