by R. Anthony Arnold
Some day, far away from today, some kid might ask me “Old-Timer, what was politics like in your day?” And I’ll gaze, thoughtfully, before I tell the tale of Kevin McCarthy, a man who got everything he asked for. Only to find out just how true the old phrase, “Be careful what you wish for,” really is.
You see, Kevin was a classic Washington Insider. A gladhander. A backslapper. A retail politician who colleagues described as a “happy warrior.” But he was also a climber, and when the chance to get the big job, as Speaker of the House, became available, he couldn’t turn it down.
So, he begged, bargained, and cut deals. He said, and did, whatever was necessary to get the votes he needed. And it worked. For NINE WHOLE MONTHS, Kevin McCarthy was the most powerful man in the House. For nine months, all those promises and words didn’t matter. But, to quote my man Mordo from Dr. Strange, “the bill comes due.” And earlier this week, former Speaker McCarthy got presented with a bill of historic proportions. One he couldn’t possibly afford; which is how we ended up where we are.
The House has no Speaker, only a few people have an idea who’s going to be next one and nobody seems to know what this means for the future of the House, both short and long-term. As seems to be the case now, our political dysfunction only seems to deepen with every moment.
But who, exactly, is to blame for all this?
The first answer is the former Speaker himself. Look, I sympathize with him in many ways. Studying the history of the House will make you quickly realize that governing that body, with its non-stop campaigning, hundreds of members, and penchant for quirkiness, really is like herding cats. In the best of times, the House is rowdy and unruly, a challenge for even the most deft of politicians to tackle. We are not in the best of times.
During times like these, the job is a nightmare. Personality clashes. Policy clashes. And at least a few members who want nothing more than to burn the entire thing down, preferably with the nation’s leadership inside. But, the job being difficult is no excuse for being bad at it, especially if you knew what you were getting into.
McCarthy knew what he was getting into; and he wasn’t good at it. His style works well when you’re the “good cop” who comes in after leadership lays down the gauntlet and smoothes things over. It doesn’t work so well when you’re the one having to figure out the delicate balance between using the carrot or the stick. From the moment he campaigned for the position 9 months ago, it was clear he didn’t know how to walk that line. The hope was that he might learn on the job, at least enough to get the House to the next Presidential election, but it turns out that was too much to ask for.
He is not the only one to blame. McCarthy shares the blame for this chaos with two other parties.
First, we have Matt Gaetz. Gaetz is the self-appointed King of the Bombthrowers, a politician who seems to take great glee in sowing chaos, and who has, for some time now, seemed to harbor a personal grudge against McCarthy. His disdain for leadership, for rules, and for tradition is so fervent that it almost seems like an act.
But whether he’s truly committed, or this is all just a ruse, is irrelevant. He started the process that got us here, and in my eyes that makes him responsible for what comes next. Do I think any of this will matter to his supporters back home? No, I don’t. Disdainful as I may find it, they sent him there to do stuff like this. I imagine that they’re very satisfied with their choice today.
Lastly, we have House Democrats.
The most straightforward way of judging a politician's actions is to look at how they vote. In this case, it’s simply a fact that of the 216 elected officials who voted to get rid of McCarthy, 208 of them were Democrats. That’s a fact.
I get that nobody wanted to save McCarthy, whom they were sick of; and I get that hurting your political opposition will never go out of fashion, especially when partisanship runs as deep as it does. I’m not naive, and I don’t discount those reasons.
But, instability hurts all of us. It hurts our institutions. It hurts our nation. Democrats were faced with two choices. Reject McCarthy, and hurt all Republicans. Or back him and teach a lesson to the worst actors in Congress. I think they chose poorly.
I don’t claim to have the final word on this matter. Last night, Francine and I had a brief back-and-forth about this. This morning, Alex and I had one. Both of them have differing opinions on this particular branch of my criticism. Which is ok. We live in unfortunately complicated and exciting times, and when something historically unprecedented happens, it’s fine to have differing viewpoints.
But, I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve, once again, broken through another guardrail. That we’ve, once again, decided to discard decorum and wisdom in favor of short-term payoff. There’s a time for cold-blooded and ruthless politics, there’s a time for more strategic and patient maneuvers, and there’s a time for setting all of that aside and focusing on protecting the institution that you’ve been chosen to serve.
I wish we had far more of the latter, but I fear we have almost exclusively the former.
As to what comes next, it’s anyone’s guess.
The House has until Nov. 17th to pass a budget, which is the date that the temporary continuing resolution will run out, work that literally can’t be done right now, because there’s no Speaker. Will whoever takes that job next be willing to work with Democrats to pass something through the House? I don’t know, but I don’t think that recent events are going to make it any easier.
Will the next Republican Speaker be chosen with any support from Democrats? The likely answer is no, but that might be the only way a more reasonable candidate gets the job. If the next person up is forced to go to Gaetz, hat-in-hand, begging for votes? Then you can toss that idea out the window. That’s what got McCarthy into this mess in the first place.
As a political commentator, part of the job is to try and predict what’s going to happen. To look in my crystal ball and hopefully conjure up an image of the future where things are better than they are today. If only that were the case.
I’ve said this before, but what I expect is for the nation to muddle through this season. I don’t expect we’ll collapse, but I don’t think we’re well-positioned to flourish, either. The House finally destroying itself due to partisanship is simply the latest example of why I feel the way I do.