Sen. Rick Scott recently did what no one else in the Republican Senate thought important: he released an agenda ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Up to this point, Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, appeared content to proudly run on no strategy at all, convinced that simply pointing at Democrats and shrieking about how bad they are will crown them victorious.
As a point of electoral politics, this is not completely irrational. Polling shows Democratic policy failures and broad cultural overreaches are driving voters to Republicans in record numbers.
But as I’ve written previously, a content-free campaign only gets you so far. In many cases, the voters now identifying with Republicans are non-traditional GOP voters. To get them to stick around—that is, to actually expand the base of the party while continuing to motivate traditional base voters—you have to tell them what you’re for, what you’re going to do. And then you have to go and do it.
Establishment politicians dislike agendas because they’re a measure of accountability. An agenda is a tangible reminder of what a majority said they were going to do. On the contrary, traditional establishment rhetoric routinely plays down expectations about what’s possible, makes vague hand gestures about “the long game” (usually undefined), and generally avoids anything that would force them to roll up their sleeves and attempt to legislate on the hard things—that is, what their base voters care about.
What the establishment prefers to do is what McConnell has always done: run on nothing except how bad the other guy is. But the absence of an agenda is a tacit acknowledgment of an agenda. And the agenda-in-the-absence-of-an-agenda is always the same: Wall Street wins, and so do lobbyists on K Street and the defense industrial base. Having no stated priorities just means the priorities are open to the highest bidder, or that the priorities of the status quo prevail.
Scott Leads, and GOP Leadership Excoriates Him
Enter Scott. Not content to follow the strategy of blandly grinning at the base while committing to addressing none of their concerns, Scott and his team wrote their own agenda—60 pages of it. The 11-point overview covers everything from border security to asserting the primacy of the nuclear family, declaring basic facts of biology, election integrity, and taking on Big Tech. It’s a broad and sweeping look at the issues, from economics to culture, that are roiling Americans all over the country.
For his efforts, Scott was not applauded, at least not in Washington. Rather, he was immediately savaged by his own leadership. McConnell and his allies reportedly excoriated Scott in a meeting behind closed doors, followed by a press conference where McConnell, when asked about Scott’s proposal, felt the need to remind everyone that “If we’re fortunate enough to have the majority next year, I’ll be the majority leader.” Someone’s feeling touchy. (The conference-wide election for majority leader will occur in the days following November’s election.)
McConnell, who ripped the Republican National Committee for justifiably censuring Republican Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger because “we support all members of our party, regardless of their positions on some issues,” apparently doesn’t support Scott’s attempt to articulate where he stands—and where he thinks the party should stand. Instead of cultivating the creativity and leadership expressed in Scott’s effort, McConnell dismissed it as an affront to his own power.
He also took issue with one of the bullet points in Scott’s sweeping agenda, specifically the proposal that roughly 60 percent of Americans who don’t pay income tax should be brought into tax parity. After feeling the need to remind everyone that he, not Scott, will be the incoming majority leader, McConnell stated, “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people….”
Fair enough. Scott unveiled a 60-page, detailed proposal, and not everyone is going to agree on the full substance. But to dismiss the full proposal because of a bullet point is an obvious attempt to kneecap the effort entirely, not provide constructive feedback.
Moreover, McConnell has, in the past, supported income tax parity, telling CBS News in 2012 that “Between 45 percent and 50 percent of Americans pay no income tax at all. We have an extraordinarily progressive tax code already. It is a mess and needs to be revisited again.”
But McConnell’s flip-flop on the issue will hardly bother him, because his fixation on Scott’s agenda isn’t about the substance, it’s about the perceived affront to his own authority. McConnell notoriously rules the Senate—constructed as a body of equals—with an iron fist.
Although only when it suits him.
I Can Lead, Just Not On Anything Voters Want
Just two weeks ago, McConnell and his leadership team cried helplessness in the face of four of their own members failing to show up for a vote to take down what remains of Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate. Due to Democratic absences, Republicans could have prevailed on the vote, which failed 46-47 due to Sens. Jim Inhofe, Mitt Romney, Richard Burr, and Lindsey Graham choosing to be elsewhere. Inhofe was said to be with his ailing wife. Graham had jetted off to a defense junket in Germany. Romney and Burr were simply not there.
Curiously, McConnell was not outraged by this embarrassing failure of senators to heed his authority. Perhaps that was because the vote—hugely important to the GOP base—wasn’t treated as important by the Senate GOP leadership.
Wittingly or not, McConnell’s failure to lead on a midterm agenda has opened the door for senators who will. Scott should be applauded for his effort, particularly as it’s already achieving results. At the end of the press conference in which he trashed Scott’s agenda, McConnell, who has previously said voters will find out the agenda when they re-elect the Senate GOP, was forced to issue the bare outline of one: inflation, energy, defense, the border, and crime.
This has none of the detail or comprehensive thoughtfulness exhibited by Scott’s effort, but right now, it’s all GOP voters have to hang their hat on. And the fact that it exists at all is because Scott saw a leadership breach and stepped squarely into it. Good on him.