It’s been a generation since the right-wing activist Grover Norquist said his movement’s goal wasn’t to eliminate government, but merely to “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” Since then, the failure of a downsized and disinterested government to respond to crises like Hurricane Katrina seemed to have proved the empty fallacy of those words. And today, you’d think the federal government’s botched-in-every-way response to the coronavirus would be the exclamation point. Instead, we find Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his clothes soaking wet, and his thumbprints buried deeply around the neck of the nearly departed.

Even for the man whose cynical denial of our first black president’s right to fill a Supreme Court vacancy was the pre-Trump moment that American democracy plowed through the guardrails, the political nihilism of McConnell’s refusal to even take up the case of the nation’s economically drowning states and localities ought to be shocking.

In a series of interviews late last week, the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill said that he supports letting states go bankrupt instead of approving the hundreds of millions of dollars in relief they’re requesting — and claimed that the source of their woes is “the pension problem.” Ignoring the bad coronavirus decisions, mostly at the federal level, that caused state revenues to dry up and social welfare costs to soar, the Kentuckian claimed, “We’re not interested in rescuing them from bad decisions they’ve made in the past.” He’s even called a state-and-local relief package “a blue state bailout,” which sounded like a cheap ploy to make the GOP’s heartland base angry at New York and California, even though most fiscal experts say the current crisis will hit red states — even McConnell’s Kentucky — as badly, or worse.

Let’s be clear: If McConnell is serious about this, and if he holds his Senate majority together (spoiler alert: He usually does), it won’t be the likes of Govs. Andrew Cuomo or Gavin Newsom who’ll be hurt. They’ll be fine. No, the victims of these Republican tactics would be the folks that we’re now calling “essential workers.” With states now facing a shortfall estimated to hit $500 billion by mid-2022, and big cities in the same boat, the status quo would require massive layoffs of cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, teachers, and more. It’s not clear if McConnell’s bankruptcy scenario is even realistic, but the goal of crushing public-employee pensions — after successfully doing so in the private sector — remains real.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (center) speaks with reporters outside the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 9.
Patrick Semansky / AP
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (center) speaks with reporters outside the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 9.

My core thinking on McConnell’s scheme can be boiled down to one word: Why?

It feels like a case of political suicide, that McConnell and some of his GOP colleagues are so wedded to an anti-government philosophy that — even in the nation’s biggest crisis since World War II — they’re willing to drink the Clorox. The lack of political common sense seems stunning. The nation’s unemployment rate right now seems somewhere in the 15%-20% — i.e., Great Depression II — level, so laying off middle-class government workers in the fall of a presidential election year seems pretty self-destructive. The apparent lack of any real game plan here even caused me last week to ask my Twitter followers what they thought is going on here. Some ideas:

Short-term politics. The “best-case” scenario is that McConnell is playing within the bounds of normalized political cynicism, that at some point he’ll at least hear the pleas of suffering red state governors and grant some federal relief, even if it’s less than the $700 million sought by Democrats. Even if this is the case, the final package — if recent history is any guide — will be less than what these governments need, and it will be used as leverage to squeeze even more dollars out for McConnell’s true patrons, the millionaires and corporations that have done so well in the first four bills.

“Sado-populism?” This is the theory popularized by the historian Timothy Snyder and others that right-wing populist movements can’t deliver on their political promises (or, in the case of America’s GOP, remain wedded in reality to monied elites), and so they instead deliver pain and retain power by blaming the new suffering on someone else — immigrants, or the undeserving poor, or Democrats, or unions, or some combo. McConnell’s move certainly matches the motive of the fake-spontaneous “open up the economy” protests that have sought to make mostly Democratic governors the coronavirus villain instead of a mostly Republican federal government.

Blind ideological belief. The Republicans’ war on what they claim are overly jealous pensions for government retirees goes back more than a decade. The New Republic in the 2010s called retired teachers or firefighters getting a large enough pension to live on “the new welfare queens,” as far as the GOP was concerned. To be clear, many governments, including my home state of Pennsylvania, have been forced to already make adjustments to pension deals (made by both Republican and Democratic politicians) from the boom years of the 1990s that have failed to add up. The bipartisan nature of those problems hasn’t stopped the right from trying to make this a “Democrat issue.”

The most zealous “thought leaders” in the conservative movement believe that breaking pensions will help them break government-employee unions, which they see as a key bastion of remaining support for Democrats. But here’s a reality check: Over the last 40 years, the GOP has been hugely successful in breaking unions and eliminating pensions in the private sector, driving the gross inequality we see playing out in the COVID-19 crisis.

Union-busting and cash-poor states, of course, gives Republicans more opportunities to push privatization, which has made a lot of crony capitalists rich even if it hasn’t made government more efficient. But also the survival of public-employee unions and pensions is an embarrassment to the conservative movement by showing voters an alternative universe where “essential” middle-class workers are rewarded for their toil — instead of all of the benefits flowing to CEOs and shareholders. What’s more, this disparity might even give the plebeian class some rebellious ideas.

No wonder they’d want to crush that.

Yet politically, this cynical playbook has worked in the past. In the early 2010s, with a Great Recession largely caused by the shady dealings of the Wall Street types who also fund the campaigns of McConnell and his allies, billionaires and Fox News helped foment a Tea Party movement that instead blamed government spending and Democrats for the nation’s economic woes. Republicans took back Congress over the decade and then the White House. But if you keep running the same basic off-tackle play on every down, eventually it’s going to stop working.

With the economy, there’s been a lot of magical thinking all around, which goes: Sure, things are horrendous now, but you’ll see much of the economy “pop” back once we can sound the “all clear” on COVID-19. The reality is very different. When restaurants or movie theaters do reopen, some lost customers will already be too broke to go back, and others will continue to isolate over health worries. For state governments, that lingering recession will come after two to three months of almost incalculable fiscal harm. And without aid, that pain will be passed on to their workers.

In Pennsylvania, the Great Recession and the freezes on state aid for education that resulted from lost revenue meant at least 14,000 teacher layoffs by the fall of 2011, to cite just one small example of how this works. The real victims aren’t the unions, but the kids who get less instruction to prepare them for whatever 21st-century economy can replace our lame 20th-century model.

But this time around, McConnell’s bluster reeks of “last throes” desperation for a dying movement. For one thing, the “essential worker” tags on a middle-class workforce — many of whom work for the government — make it almost impossible to brand them as “welfare queens” this time around. That, coupled with a stunning loss of political support for President Donald Trump and the GOP among older voters — many of whom have lost someone personally to the coronavirus — suggests that it’s too late for Republicans to divert blame. If the election were held today, it’s likely that not only would Republicans lose the Senate, but Kentucky voters might end McConnell’s overlong career.

In that sense, maybe the real explanation for McConnell’s inexplicable stance on state aid is simply a scorched-earth policy to selfishly burn it all down while engaging in a full retreat. If Senate Republicans truly won’t relent between now and their increasingly likely loss of power next January, there is one thing states and cities can do when they lay off our teachers and shut down our neighborhood firehouses. They can name the enabling legislation Mitch’s Law.

Columnist’s note: If pieces like this one make you think that America is hopelessly, perpetually divided ... actually, I have a plan for that. It drops in a couple of days, but you have to subscribe to my brand-newish the Will Bunch Newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to sign up, and you can do so here. It’s like this column, but looser and (even?) more fun. Subscribe today — inquirer.com/bunch — and I’ll see you again soon.