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McConnell the Man Who Declares Things “Controversial”

The latest profile of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by Joshua Green shows what a politically savvy operator McConnell is. McConnell understands that in the Washington-focused media all that it takes to make something “controversial” is for the leader of the minority to declare it a controversy, regardless of how public feels. From The Atlantic:

“We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.”

This is a fundamental insight on the part of McConnell into how disengaged the public is in policy debates, an insight which the Democratic leadership was never able to grasp.

This issue is two fold. First the American people find Congressional maneuvering extremely boring and pay very little attention to it. For example only a quarter of the country even  knows how many votes it takes to break a filibuster.

Second, the media loves to report on a fight. As a result of the media’s desire to play up the fight angle, the use of the term “controversial” is almost entirely disconnected from its meaning in the context of Congressional debate.

In effect, all that is needed for something to be declared “controversial” is to have leadership on one side declare it so. For example the media was more than happy to refer repeatedly this year to the controversy over ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” simply because McConnell and most Republicans opposed it.

Of course outside GOP caucus meetings there was no controversy or dispute across the rest of the country. An amazing 75% of the public supports allowing gays to serve openly in the military. It would be hard to think of another issue that is less controversial due to overwhelming public consensus.

McConnell doesn’t actually need to only oppose Democrats’ unpopular proposals. He can simply declare that he opposes the Democrats’ plan thereby instantly making the issue a “controversy” for the media. By merely labeling any proposal “controversial” he can often succeed in making it less popular.

At a purely political level, McConnell plays this game beautifully.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at