August 11, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Where is the ‘master of the Senate’?

Turns out Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are bad at politics.

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I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. I’m sure many of you already understand plenty about basic economics. You don’t need a novice like me explaining things. But I’m afraid I must explain, just a little, because the Senate Republicans keep using the fundamentals of economics as rationale for refusing to act responsibly. They must pass legislation to stimulate the economy or the nation faces dire consequences. The problem isn’t ideology, though. That’s a ruse. The problem is they’re bad at politics.

Beneath the debate to extend the flat $600-a-week in unemployment benefits, which is one of the issues preventing both sides from coming to an agreement, is a familiar talking point beloved of Republicans who call themselves conservatives. The federal government, we’re told, should not remit more money to workers than the amount workers would normally earn in the absence of a pandemic that has now killed more than 160,000 Americans, infected 5,000,000 more and dislodged scores of millions from their workplaces. Remitting more money to workers than they would normally earn would be a disincentive to working, we’re told, which is a moral and economic failing. No one should get money for which they have not exchanged their labor.

Turns out that plaudit depends on his conference being united against things, not for things, putting him in the ridiculous position of accusing congressional Democrats of obstruction.

It’s worth bearing in mind nearly all the Senate Republicans are millionaires. For instance, Ted Cruz (Texas) has a net worth of $3,198,068. Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), the majority leader, is worth $34,137,534. Thom Tillis (North Carolina) is worth $10,966,045. Susan Collins (Maine) is worth $7,873,086. Steve Daines (Montana) is worth $32,863,042. David Perdue (Georgia) is worth $30,098,571. Kelly Loeffler (Georgia) is worth a stunning $500,000,000. There are exceptions. John Thune (South Dakota), Senate No. 2, is only worth $310,512. Joni Ernst (Iowa) has a net worth of -$196,984. As someone in debt, she’s the most normal senator. All figures are as of 2018. (Lots of Senate Democrats are millionaires, but they favor extending the benefit.)

Most normal people, if they are able to work, trade labor for money. When you have as much money as most of these Senate Republicans have, however, you don’t trade labor for money anymore. You might work anyway, and that’s certainly the case when the Senate is in session (even if all they’re doing is mass-producing judges). But when you have this much money, it’s your money that’s working for you. (In Cruz’s case, his wedding did the heavy lifting. He married a banker.) The people saying it’s wrong for Americans to get money they have not worked for are the same people who do not work for their money. Their money does that work for them on Wall Street. Moreover, the same people worried about disincentives to working debunk their own argument. They are rich. They don’t need (have incentive) to work. Yet they work anyway. Bottom line: Money is the most common reason why people work but it’s not the only reason.

Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!

You may have noticed an ugliness lurking in the shadows of conservative economic thinking—contempt for people who must work. Greater mortals (people whose money works for them) don’t work for “mere” money. They work for glory or honor or some noble cause. Lesser mortals can’t do that. Their lot is to toil. The possibility of not having to work, on account of getting money from the government, must be viewed skeptically, because lesser mortals, on account of not being greater mortals, can’t be trusted. If they don’t have incentive to work, they won’t work, a consequence that threatens to destabilize the political order, which is the natural order, which is the order maintaining the difference between greater and lesser mortals. Infuse this view with racism and classism, and you have GOP economics over the last four decades.

There’s a problem with this analysis, however. It takes Republican economic thinking too seriously. Fact is, Donald Trump and the GOP don’t know which way to turn, because they are so very bad at politics. The president thought he had the advantage after going around lawmakers. But that was a tell more than leverage. In signing four executive orders that purported to stimulate the economy, Trump broadcast loud and clear how desperate he was to strike a deal. Moreover, those executive orders are not only small beer, according to analysis from Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan; they also put added strain on states already beyond their budgetary limits. Meanwhile, all 50 governors, including Republicans, want Washington to bail their states out.

As for the Republicans in the current Congress, they don’t know what to do either. Some think Trump has already lost. They’re getting ready for the next Democratic president. Others aren’t doing even that, just hunkering down and preparing to say no to everything. McConnell is renown for being a “master of the Senate” but turns out that depends on his conference being united against things, not for things, putting him in the ridiculous position of accusing congressional Democrats of obstruction. (The House passed a three and a half trillion dollar stimulus package back in May.) Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are holding the aces. All they have to do is wait.

It’s tempting, oh-so-tempting to take GOP economics and knock it down, and sometimes that’s needed. But in this case, the problem isn’t ideology. Trump and the Republicans are bad at politics, and the rest of us may end up suffering for it.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Chris on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    John, as an aside, please consider what my friend said to me yesterday during a text exchange… “Independent journalists are not beholden to ethics boards. They are important, but I prefer institutional checks and balances. Besides, if you are a freelance journalist, you answer to clicks and advertising like anybody else. It is easier to buy off independent journalists than well-established news organizations that have long-term reputations to uphold.” What would you say to that? Thanks.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

      Well, first, reporters are not beholden to ethics boards, because there are none in journalism. There is a professional code of ethics, but that has no teeth. Ethics is more between and among reporters and editors. I suppose some indie journalists are easy to buy off, but then again, if you’re getting bought off, you probably weren’t all that serious about journalism anyway. As for me, I don’t answer to clicks. I don’t run advertising. My only concern is my subscribers, and even then, I irritated them on occasion. As for reputations, everyone has one to uphold. In fact, that’s pretty much all you got–credibility–in the end, so you protect it fiercely. That’s prevents serious journalists from being bought off. My sense is your friend doesn’t know a lot, or even a little, about how journalism works.

    • Burgs on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

      We need both. There are stories the smaller guys can’t afford to chase down, and there are stories the bigger outlets may not give enough attention. Both are critical to our democracy.

  2. hw on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    So much of the GOP mythology has been shown to be just that…a myth, vaporware. I would urge people to read Stuart Stevens’ new book “It Was All A Lie”, chronicling the implosion of the GOP and the hollowness of GOP ‘values’. Stevens was a very high-level Republican strategist, responsible for electing untold numbers of governors, senators, and presidents. He is unsparing, even with his own former delusions about the party. He ends the book stating that he not only recognizes that the current GOP leadership is completely devoid of conservative values but also of common decency.

  3. Burgs on July 30, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    I agree John, the Dems should sit back and let the executive orders fail like they were inevitably bound to do. If Trump solved the problem, great, where’s the unemployment money? When should everyone be expecting their check? Got a specific date for that payment, my landlord is asking?

    How many weeks of no money arriving until it’s obvious that Trump once again did nothing and claimed it was a perfect solution. When nothing actually happens, he’s still going to be on the hook.

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