In looking for a good quotation as a theme for this column, I was undecided between Abraham Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and Pogo’s “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
MAGA Republicans fit both.
They dumped their invertebrate Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy for having committed the unpardonable sin of bipartisan cooperation with the hated Democrats in a last-minute move to prevent a government shutdown.
McCarthy, with nightmares of his party being tossed back into the minority, briefly revealed a smidgeon of spinal cord, but it was too little, too late for the extremists who’d been gunning for him since day one.
If he was looking for Democrats to help rescue him from Monday’s vote to vacate his speakership, he blew that deal too, with a string of broken promises. His last-minute effort to go on television and blame the whole fiasco on the Democrats and President Joe Biden only drew laughter from CBS Face the Nation moderator Margaret Brennan.
The weakest speaker in history has just become the shortest serving and first-ever toppled. He was the victim of internecine warfare and self-inflicted wounds. The Democrats were left sitting on the bench watching the extreme right battle the far Right while the near Right just moaned and groaned.
The Democrats were brought in finally at the last minute to avoid a government shutdown Saturday night.
The reprieve is only temporary
The nihilists will try to shut down the government again next month when the 45-day continuing resolution expires, regardless of who becomes speaker.
The man behind the overthrow is McCarthy’s bete noir, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida). He pressed his motion to dump the speaker as punishment for avoiding the shutdown that the hardline fringe and Donald Trump demanded.
THE BUZZ around the Hill is that Gaetz’s real motivation has less to do with fiscal philosophy than with a grudge against McCarthy for refusing to quash an ethics committee investigation into allegations of the congressman’s involvement in sex trafficking, among other matters. The resulting media attention has proven a useful fundraiser – his appeals were sent out even before he introduced his resolution – for a rumored run for Florida governor.
Democrats were unwilling to rescue McCarthy. He had proven too weak and unreliable, having quickly broken his debt ceiling agreement with them last spring.
Gaetz may be right on one charge: “Nobody trusts Kevin McCarthy.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) pointed out that this brouhaha “could have been avoided” if McCarthy had honored his deal with Biden. Rep. Bob Good (R-Virginia) called the bipartisan bill “total capitulation” and voted to oust the speaker. The Freedom Caucus and the hardliners have no real interest in government. Quite the opposite.
They welcome shutting down the government because they believe Ronald Reagan’s absurd declaration that “government is not the solution; government is the problem.” They believe in a laissez-faire, “you’re on your own” government for the middle and lower classes, and state socialism like tax cuts and other rewards for their wealthiest supporters and contributors.
Republicans declared that winning control of the House in 2022 – with the thinnest of majorities – gave them a mandate to govern; instead, they delivered a dysfunctional institution dominated by a radical minority and torn by internecine warfare. Not a winning message to take to voters next year.
Once again, I find unsettling parallels between what is happening in Washington and Jerusalem. Israel is a nation deeply divided over some of the same issues, particularly protecting and defending democracy against an assault by a reactionary minority. There are also issues such as gender segregation, minority rights, treatment of LGBTQ citizens, the role of religion, free speech, and accountability.
Gaetz and his gang of extremists were dubbed the “clown caucus” by their Republican colleague, John James of Michigan, but the real blame belongs to McCarthy himself. It was his own weakness and unthinking concessions back in January, over 15 ballots that led him to make promises he couldn’t keep.
The other player in this drama is on trial in New York, this week, where a judge already found him guilty of fraud and is now deciding on the penalty, including his ability to do business in that state, as he awaits trial on 91 assorted felony charges in state and federal courts.
Loudly pushing House Republicans to the precipice was Donald “it’s all about me” Trump. He demanded his acolytes in the House “shut it down,” not out of fiscal parsimony, but “to defund these political prosecutions against me.”
He also wants House Republicans to rescind his two impeachments and is reportedly angered by McCarthy for not publicly endorsing him for president.
At the 11th hour, McCarthy finally came to understand what his counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), had been telling him, that when Republicans shut down the government, voters punish them at the next election. However, I’m not sure many of his colleagues understand.
This may turn out to be a good week for the Democrats. The deeply divided Republicans didn’t drive over the shutdown cliff this time, but they could try again next month. Hopefully, that will send them back in the minority after the 2024 election. In fact, Democrats have collected a substantial number of soundbites from swing-district Republicans calling for deep cuts in popular social programs.
Biden let them know they gave him a powerful campaign message. Speaking at the swearing-in of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, he warned, “If the House fails to fulfill its most basic function… it will have failed all our troops... It’s a disgrace.”
Furthermore, when McCarthy capitulated to the pro-Russia faction of his party and the isolationists by stripping $6 billion in emergency funding for Ukraine, one of the big winners was Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite broad bipartisan support for the aid, McCarthy pulled it to appease Trump and the pro-Putin hardliners.
It was withholding military assistance for Ukraine that got Trump impeached the first time. If there’s anything that the disgraced former president does well, it is to hold grudges; exacerbating the matter is his admiration for Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine he called “genius” and “savvy.”
Much of the Republican opposition to aid for Ukraine has less to do with the money than with admiration for Putin and his brutal, repressive, anti-democratic regime, and their own support for “a wannabe dictator at home,” as columnist Paul Krugman pointed out.
Washington Post political analyst Dan Balz called the shutdown showdown “a kaleidoscopic display of self-inflicted wounds by politicians struggling to govern.”
Look for an encore in six weeks.
Lincoln and Pogo were right. Again.
The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.