McConnell Fears Overconfidence

Posted September 10, 2010 at 6:14pm

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Friday cautioned Republicans against appearing to take for granted that they will make significant electoral gains in November, saying Democrats still have cards to play and voters rarely reward overconfidence.

In an interview Friday, the Kentucky Republican warned that the “American people have not finally spoken yet. And I don’t think they like any measuring of the drapes.”

“I think the time to spike the ball in the end zone is when you’ve scored” and not before, McConnell said, although he readily acknowledged Republicans are well-positioned this year.

“Having said that, we’ve got a really good atmosphere in this election. We’ve got competitive candidates everywhere there is now a Democratic Senator,” McConnell said, listing California, Indiana, Washington, Illinois, Colorado, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Delaware and even West Virginia and Connecticut as being in play.

Nevertheless, McConnell said that even with those favorable conditions, “my own view is, ‘Don’t promise things you can’t deliver.’ And we need, as I said, not to appear to be measuring the drapes. … There is much that can run off the tracks” before Election Day.

McConnell’s cautious approach to the election stands in stark contrast to House Minority Leader John Boehner’s public statements, which have been laced with references to a possible GOP majority and his own Speakership.

“I’ve said that if I were fortunate enough to be Speaker of the House, I would run the House differently,” the Ohio Republican said during a recent speech in Cleveland. “And I don’t just mean differently than the way Democrats are running it now. I mean differently than it’s been run in the past under Democrats or Republicans.”

The differences in tone, Republicans say, is largely the result of the differing political worlds in which the two leaders are operating: While Boehner has a decent shot of taking over the House, McConnell’s chance are significantly slimmer. The bare-knuckle politics practiced in the House also creates inevitable differences with the more courtly Senate.

“Part of it is the functionality of the two roles,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean, who served as communications director for former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and as chief of staff for the Senate Republican Conference under then-Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

Despite McConnell’s cautious approach, this year is shaping up to be a major success for Republicans. Many political handicappers are predicting GOP gains of 40 seats or more in the House, which could be enough to put Republicans back in the majority.

Given that political reality, Boehner’s decision to begin focusing — even rhetorically — on what the House may look like under his watch is natural, Republicans say.

“It’s expected that the House Republicans are going to take over. Republican leader Boehner is positioning himself to become Speaker, he has to be more high profile in that role,” Bonjean said.

“The Senate is just different. McConnell doesn’t have to be the lead person in front at this point,” Bonjean said, adding that “if Senate Republicans do win, McConnell will be the Majority Leader.”

A senior Senate GOP aide who has also worked in the House said, “In the House, the caucus moves when the leader says so. It’s not like that in the Senate.”

For instance, while the Speaker can largely dictate the chamber’s legislative agenda and what the bills will look like, in the Senate, leaders rarely promise specifics of legislation because the process is much more fluid and unpredictable.

“In true Senate fashion, you don’t give details because the bill will actually be legislated and the details will change,” the Senate GOP aide said. Boehner’s “caucus lives in specifics. That’s how the House works.”

Several House Republicans also speculated that Boehner’s high-profile campaign is to help lay the groundwork for the governing agenda. Boehner enlisted Chief Deputy Minority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) to head up an effort to craft a new Republican legislative agenda — a document that Senate Republicans have made no effort to embrace.

Aides in both chambers said differences can also be seen in how the two leaders have dealt with the White House.

Boehner has taken a much more adversarial role with the administration, giving high-profile speeches calling for President Barack Obama’s top economic advisers to step down and most recently for immediate passage of tax and spending cuts.

McConnell, while ramping up his criticism of the administration over the past several months, has largely remained focused on the GOP’s economic and fiscal responsibility message rather than engaging with the White House.

But despite their divergent leadership styles, the two leaders have a very close working relationship.

For the past four years, McConnell and Boehner have met biweekly when Congress is in session and have coordinated many of their attacks on Democrats and their messaging efforts.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said the relationship between the two leaders remains strong.

“Sen. McConnell and Rep. Boehner, and their staffs, have an incredibly close and effective working relationship. That will continue, regardless of what happens in November,” Steel said.