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Mitch McConnell Moneybox

You Snooze You Lose

How Mitch McConnell weaponized our short attention span.

Mitch McConnell is winning, yet again.

Senate Republicans are reportedly close to voting on a bill that would repeal Obamacare and potentially strip insurance from millions of Americans. Under normal circumstances, this sort of momentous legislation would have been dominating the news cycle for weeks. Instead, it’s been virtually absent from broadcast news and become a C-level subplot on cable, thanks to McConnell’s tactically ingenious decision to skip the normal committee process and craft his party’s bill behind closed doors, before rushing it to a floor vote, likely next week. Without a public process, journalists just haven’t had much to cover—and voters haven’t been able to grok what’s at stake.

Of course, the mere fact that Republicans have decided to produce a health care bill largely in secret is itself a scandal. But unfortunately, it’s also a political process story involving arcane-sounding concepts like reconciliation and conference committees. And if there’s one thing most Americans and CNN producers are evidently indifferent to, it’s political process.

That, more than anything, is the secret to McConnell’s success as a congressional leader. Over the years he has masterfully twisted the rules of Senate procedure to the GOP’s advantage by breaking Washington norms that voters fundamentally don’t think or care much about, in part because they make for dry copy and soporific television. Our national aversion to process stories helped the Kentuckian gum up President Obama’s political agenda and deny him a Supreme Court appointment. And now it may allow him to pass a health care bill by stealth.

Before he ascended to the Senate’s upper rungs, Mitch McConnell’s political biography as a rigidly partisan fundraising obsessive did not mark him as a man who’d change history. But as minority leader, he proved himself a brilliant political strategist and tactician by waging an all-out war of resistance against President Obama, largely by using a record number of Senate filibusters in order to slow down business on Capitol Hill and jam up the administration’s nominees. As Norm Ornstein wrote for National Journal, “The rule had not changed, but the norms were blown up. Filibusters were used not simply to block legislation or occasional nominations, but routinely, even on matters and nominations that were entirely uncontroversial and ultimately passed unanimously or near-unanimously.”

Weaponizing the filibuster and denying the president bipartisan cover turned out to be extremely savvy, because relatively few Americans care much about the nuances of congressional procedure, and the public is generally apt to blame the president’s party for its frustrations (as Obama’s approval ratings at the time showed). During the heat of the health care debate in 2010, for instance, Pew found that only 26 percent of Americans knew it took 60 votes to end debate in the Senate. And insofar as people were frustrated by Congress, they may not have understood which party to be angry at; in the run-up to the 2014 midterms, for instance, Rasmussen found that more than one-third of likely voters were in the dark about which party controlled the House and Senate. (Among all Americans, just 38 percent knew who was in power on the Hill, according to the Annenberg Public Policy center.)

Suffice to say, it’s a bit easier to grind a chamber of Congress to a halt or frustrate a president when a sizable portion of the voting public has no idea what you’re doing—or how. You just have to be willing to do it.

Take the Republican Party’s obstruction of Merrick Garland, another terribly boring but important episode in which McConnell, finally majority leader, shattered congressional norms in service of his political ends. Never before had the Senate refused to even grant a hearing to a president’s high court pick. But while most Americans thought the judge at least deserved an up-or-down vote—Senate Republicans could have easily rejected him—his unfortunate fate eventually just faded from the news, since there just wasn’t much to talk about. There are only so many ways for reporters to write about how someone is not going to sit on the Supreme Court and that Republicans are shredding the old, brittle rule book that underpins our political institutions. And without public hearings, there was rarely much of a news hook to hang the story back up on. By standing firm until the initial outrage dissipated and everyday citizens either didn’t care or didn’t know that the Republicans planned to rob the president of a Supreme Court seat, McConnell won, his methods as devious as they were boring.

With his health care push, McConnell is once again getting a free pass after smashing Senate precedent. He has chosen to abandon the typical committee process in order to hash out a bill in private with a select group of Republican senators before rushing it to the floor. We won’t likely see a draft until Thursday, with a vote expected next Tuesday. Republican senators are dodging questions about the bill by claiming they still haven’t seen any text. Again, this is an anti-democratic scandal in its own right. The Senate is writing legislation that could strip health care from millions and trying to pass it with little if any meaningful debate.

And it’s barely been covered. According to Media Matters, the three major broadcast networks ran just four segments combined on health care during their nightly news shows between June 1 and June 14. Liberal-leaning MSNBC is the only news network, meanwhile, that has devoted meaningful coverage to the bill’s secrecy—because, again, most people don’t like process stories, and there’s so much more going on. If anything, the hourly insanities of the Trump era have made McConnell’s boring tactics even more powerful.

The story has also been conspicuously absent from newspaper front pages. On Tuesday, the New York Times and Washington Post websites were dominated by stories about the battle against ISIS, the Georgia special House election, and women’s wrestling in the ’80s (news hook: There’s a new Netflix show). Unsurprisingly, 76 percent of Americans told CBS in a recent poll that they hadn’t heard enough about the Senate bill to know what it would do. This is of course in stark contrast with the House bill, which ended up widely loathed after experts and activists of all political stripes savaged its early leaked drafts and the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would leave 24 million without insurance.

The lack of reporting has taken the energy out of liberal protesters who dogged House Republicans at their town halls during the late winter and spring. As one Indivisible chapter leader told Vox’s Jeff Stein, “It’s really hard to motivate people to show up and be angry when they don’t know what they’re objecting to.” With protesters at bay, TV networks have less footage to feed stories. For McConnell, it’s a rewarding cycle of silence—far preferable to the lengthy, public process of crafting Obamacare, which left the bill vulnerable to outrageous, exaggerated criticisms that evolved and metastasized over time. (Remember, Sarah Palin gave us the phrase death panels more than a month after conservative writer Betsy McCaughey originally freaked out about the bill’s section on end-of-life counseling.)

McConnell’s abuse of democratic norms is especially galling this time around, because it’s not even clear he cares about whether health care passes. He is, reportedly, “agnostic” about the policy and simply wants to get a vote over and done with so that the Senate can move on to cutting taxes.

But whether or not the GOP’s bill ultimately passes, McConnell has already pulled off a frightening coup by showing how easily you can get away with legislating by dark. Even worse, you might be rewarded for it by a media that doesn’t like to harp on the same old story about congressional minutiae day after day when it could be focusing on something with intrigue and a dramatic narrative arc, like James Comey and Trump’s Russia scandal.

U.S. democracy functions thanks to dull rules created by dull men in dull institutions. McConnell has shown that nobody bothers to tune in when a dull man smashes them.

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