When Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, dropped by NPR to chat this week, he was asked what he'll do if he finds himself with 51 votes in the Senate that convenes in January 2011.
"Gosh, I hate to thwart you on your very first question," McConnell said, a smile playing around his lips. "But I'm not about to answer that hypothetical."
And through 45 minutes of questioning by 20 NPR journalists, McConnell pretty much stuck to his guns. Upbeat as he was about his party's chances in November, he thought it "entirely too early to be spiking the ball in the end zone or to be anticipating what might happen under the scenario you raised."
But surely the prospective new Majority Leader would have a plan for things he'd like to do differently?
"I would," McConnell agreed. "But I would not share it today."
Pressed for any hint of an agenda his party might pursue, he said he and House Republican Leader John Boehner "have been discussing — along with our members — things that we may well choose to advocate."
Will there be some version of a Contract of America, the detailed 1994 wish list that propelled the last election cycle in which Republicans upended Democratic majorities in House and Senate?
"If we choose to do that we'll do it in late September, not today. We'll do that shortly before we depart for the fall elections."
Listening to McConnell, it seemed unlikely there would be anything that hard and fast this fall. There is no mercurial and charismatic Republican figure to match the Newt Gingrich who drove the Contract scenario 16 years ago. And the GOP right now sees no real need for one. They believe their voters will be abundantly motivated by the desire to repudiate the Obama administration. Period. And they believe their voters will predominate at the polls.
"Spending too much, borrowing too much, with too many government takeovers," McConnell said, easing into the litany as if finding the sweet gear on a sports car. "Now (Democrats) are contemplating advocating a tax increase on the top two (income tax) rates that would capture 50% of the small businesses and affect 25% of the total employment. Raising taxes in the middle of a recession strikes us as exactly the wrong thing to do."
McConnell is referring here to Bush-era tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 that are about to expire. Democrats are expected to extend these cuts for most Americans, but not for the top brackets. Republicans favor extending the cuts for all, including the wealthiest. McConnell is unmoved by suggestions this will deepen the deficit.
"We don't have a undertaxing problem, we have an overspending problem," he says.
On this issue, Republicans have a chance to outclass the Democrats in anti-deficit bona fides. They could propose specific spending cuts to "pay for" the revenue lost by extending the tax cuts to the highest brackets, just as they have insisted the majority make specific cuts to fund jobless benefits and other spending. But this McConnell repeatedly refused to do.
"I've told you what I'm for," he said with the slightest air of exasperation — keep all the tax cuts "and keep the focus on reducing spending."
For their part, the president and his party have been framing this fall's choice as a simple one: Forward or back. Even as McConnell was talking at NPR, the president was telling a Democratic fundraiser in Atlanta that the voters' decision in November will be just like driving a car.
"When you get in your car, when you go forward, what do you do?" asked the president. "You put it in D. When you want to go back, what do you do? You put it in R."
McConnell chuckled when asked about the forward-backward formulation.
"They would like to have one more election about the previous administration," McConnell said, referring to Democrats running against George W. Bush. "They did that in '06 and '08. I think the American people think the statute of limitations has run on that. This election in all likelihood will be about the last year and a half, when Democrats have had the White House and the House and the Senate."
The current regime may have inherited an economy and a financial system in free fall, but McConnell's calculations say it's all on the Democrats now.
"Raising taxes ... the health care bill. ..." McConnell waved his hands in the air as if at a momentary loss for words. "President had a meeting last month with a bunch of business leaders and asked them why they weren't hiring. They listed various reasons and they were all his agenda. That's why they weren't hiring."
Delighted with this anecdote, McConnell would return to it twice.
But on health care, McConnell would not commit to repeal as a policy promise. He would only cop to a personal desire to eradicate the new law enacted this year. The actual GOP strategy will have to await the results of the election, he said. He was equally non-commital about other measures the GOP might take to cripple implementation of the new law, such as starving it for administrative funds.
"We're going to be looking at this after the election," he said.
McConnell knows the score. He knows his formula for November probably works better the simpler he can keep it. The GOP critique will be cast in the most accessible terms imaginable — repeated as often as feasible in the maximum number of places. Complicating that by comparing the Obama agenda with an actual alternative agenda might only muddy the waters.
There is a risk in asking voters to buy a pig in a poke — a new majority party that has yet to differentiate itself from its own ideas and direction when last in power. Why would the party that backed George W. Bush for eight years be fundamentally different if returned to power without him?
There may be those who look for third options. And everyone has the usual option of staying home (which most do anyway in a midterm). But McConnell knows what happened to Bill Clinton in his first midterm in 1994, and to Jimmy Carter in 1978 and to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. First-term midterms have been crippling Democratic presidents for nearly half a century. And the results have had a way of lasting.
If you're the minority hoping to become the majority, just letting history repeat itself looks pretty good.