Mitch McConnell — courageous or shrewd?

Mitch McConnell’s vote to defeat a GOP filibuster on legislation approving the debt ceiling extension was widely portrayed as a courageous — “taking one for the team,” as Quin Hillyer, among others, put it.

McConnell’s vote may have been politically courageous, but more likely it was based on an understanding that it would not hurt his reelection bid.

McConnell has a comfortable lead over his Tea Party-style primary opponent Matt Bevin. His vote against the debt ceiling extension filibuster isn’t likely to reduce that lead significantly because, as the Washington Post points out, it fits within the already established campaign narrative.

The Post quotes Scott Lasley, a Kentucky county GOP chairman and professor of political science at Western Kentucky University, who says:

The race has already been defined. McConnell has his critics, and there is nothing he could do to make them happy. But this vote didn’t make him any new enemies.

Along the same lines, Kentucky Tea Party activist David Adams told the Post:

If you’re looking for a straw that’s going to break the camel’s back, the debt ceiling vote isn’t it. It’s not going to be a big turning point. It’s the latest in a long line of things McConnell has done to betray Kentucky conservatives, but it’s not a big turning point.

Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former Capitol Hill operative, agrees:

If Senator McConnell were very worried about conservatives back home jumping ship, then he wouldn’t voted [as he did]. He knew he could weather this one. He could afford to take this bullet.

That sounds right to me.

The interesting question is how McConnell’s vote will play in the general election, assuming he gets that far. Conceivably, it could cause conservative activists to stay home in November. But the stakes of the election — potential control of the Senate — seem high enough to bring conservatives to the polls. Those petulent enough to stay home were probably never going to turn out for McConnell.

McConnell’s vote might help him with some swing voters. Hillyer defies anyone to find a single independent or moderate or undecided Kentucky voter who will cast a November ballot for McConnell because of this vote, who wouldn’t otherwise have done so.

But I don’t see the difficulty in finding independent, moderate, and undecided voters whom McConnell would lose if his Democratic opponent could accuse him of having failed to oppose a filibuster the consequence of which would (according to conventional wisdom) have been the failure of the U.S. to meet its financial obligations and ensuing chaos.

McConnell may be courageous, but above all he’s shrewd.

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