A bitter start for Senate’s new leader

Mitch McConnell, the new Senate majority leader, has an exceedingly high opinion of his own power.

In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday morning outlining his priorities for the new Congress, the Kentucky Republican suggested that the GOP takeover of Congress – not yet 24 hours old – had already boosted the American economy.

“After so many years of sluggish growth, we’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope,” McConnell said in his clenched monotone. “The uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”

He was referring, obviously, to news that the U.S. economy grew at a 5 percent rate in the third quarter, the fastest in more than a decade, furthering record highs in stocks. By McConnell’s logic, Americans began to spend freely in July, August and September because they had a hunch Republicans would win the Senate in November and take control in January.

Elsewhere in his speech, McConnell hailed the contributions of senators from Henry Clay to Robert Byrd, but his self-aggrandizing claim about the economy brought to mind Byrd’s withering criticism of Republicans as pygmies who “stride like colossuses while marveling like Aesop’s fly, sitting on the axle of a chariot, ‘My, what a dust I do raise.’”

McConnell, when he wasn’t taking credit for things that preceded his ascent, gave a remarkably angry and ungracious first speech to the body he now leads. It was an 18-minute snarl, dripping with contempt and packed with campaign-style barbs for the president.

If this opening speech was a sign of McConnell’s leadership, it’s going to be a long and unproductive session. Such addresses are times to summon togetherness and high purpose.

But McConnell took the Senate on the low road. He stood still at his desk, lips pursed, clearing his throat often, and reading a grim message. “Moment of great anxiety … lost faith in their government … no longer trust Washington … losing health plans after being told otherwise … rising medical costs … difficult just to get by … world filled with chaos … autocrats scoffing at a superpower that doesn’t seem to have a real plan.”

Tucked in McConnell’s diatribe were seeds of a magnanimous speech that never took root. He spoke of great legislators of the past and called on colleagues to “look for areas of agreement when we can.” He pledged to return “regular order” to the Senate and the spending process, an admirable goal.

But he spent more of his time scolding and looking backward. He said President Obama and the Democrats should turn from their “exhausted 20th-century mind-set” and do what Republicans want. “It’s not our job to protect the president from good ideas,” he said.

No, it’s apparently McConnell’s job to chide and to taunt – and to make the next two years as bitter and unproductive as the last four.