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Monday, December 5, 2016

WASHINGTON — After he won re-election last November, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made two sets of comments reflecting the dueling impulses of the Republican Mind. Freud fans might refer to the superego, aka the conscience, and the id.

The Kentucky Republican got the most attention for gracious words to reporters the day after the election. “When the American people choose divided government, I don’t think it means they don’t want us to do anything,” he said, promising no government shutdowns and debt-ceiling disasters on his watch. “I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement.”

But his victory speech the night before was, well, not as gracious.

“For too long, this administration has tried to tell the American people what’s good for them — and then blamed somebody else when their policies didn’t work out,” he told his raucous supporters.

And the man who has spent the vast majority of his working life in the nation’s capital added this: “What the current crowd in Washington is offering is making us weaker both at home and abroad. … Friends, this experiment in Big Government has lasted long enough!”

In the spirit of the first McConnell quotation, we might let his election night combativeness go as one last run for a campaign stump speech riff that came to him by reflex.

But maybe not, and that’s the issue — for the short run and the long run. McConnell certainly knows that the battle House Speaker John Boehner’s caucus wants to have with President Obama over his executive actions on immigration is doubly counterproductive.

Most Republicans realize that one of the biggest obstacles to their building a majority in presidential elections is the fact that Latino Americans have come to feel that the GOP just doesn’t like them very much. As the party’s now much neglected “Growth and Opportunity Project” autopsy after the 2012 election put it, “if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

In any event, Republicans hold the patent on government shutdowns, so they can forget about shifting responsibility for any interruption in services at the Department of Homeland Security to the president or the Democrats. A CNN/ORC poll this week brought this home: It showed that 53 percent of Americans would blame Republicans in Congress for a DHS shutdown; only 30 percent would blame Obama.

But it’s not just this fight that matters. The larger danger for Republicans is that voters continue to see them as far more devoted to corporate interests and to succor for the wealthy than to the concerns of working Americans. Republicans hate it when Obama notes that in the 2014 elections they just won, nearly two-thirds of Americans didn’t vote. But that’s true; it was the lowest turnout since 1942. Not every election will be in large part a canvass of the Republican base. (Just ask Mitt Romney.)

Don’t believe me on this. In January of 2014, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made a point that is enlightening even if he later lost a Republican primary: “Ninety percent of Americans work for someone else. … Their dream is to have a good job, with an income that will allow them to support their family. We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people.”

The Washington Examiner put a report about Cantor’s remarks under one of the best headlines ever: “The House GOP’s incredible, amazing discovery: Most Americans aren’t entrepreneurs.”

So instead of starting this session of Congress with confrontations over immigration and the Keystone pipeline, Republicans should have opened with proposals to help working Americans advance — preferably ideas congenial enough for Obama to allow McConnell to make good on his let’s-find-agreement pledge.

Rather than bashing Obama on his free community college proposal, come up with an alternative he can work with. Obama and many leading Republicans agree on the need to raise the incomes of low-paid workers with expanded child and earned-income tax credits. Why not go there? Why not link a minimum-wage increase with benefits to businesses that help workers upgrade their skills?

It’s wise to be suspicious when you hear talk about “bipartisanship” in Congress, since it usually kicks in on behalf of interests that make big donations to both parties. Perhaps it’s naive to cling to the hope that Washington can occasionally side with those who don’t finance giant PACs or hire lobbying firms. I’m waiting for Mitch McConnell’s superego to surprise me.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

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