How Trump can help Republicans avert a speakership crisis
Can the art of the deal save Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) hopes of becoming speaker of the House? To do so may require that he swallow his pride and seek the help of none other than former President Trump.
Fellow Californian Richard Nixon faced such a moment in 1960. He knew President Dwight Eisenhower privately favored a different GOP nominee to be his successor. This belittling rankled Nixon into making a fateful choice. He wanted to be seen as winning the White House on his own, not on the general’s coattails. Nixon was favored to defeat Democratic opponent John F. Kennedy, seen as a lightweight junior U.S. senator fueled by his father’s riches.
But JFK shrewdly ran to the left of his opponent on traditional Democratic economic issues while circling the famed GOP military hawk on the right. JFK falsely claimed the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had left America vulnerable to superior Russian missiles, dubbed the “missile gap.” He knew it to be a lie yet kept repeating this political winner.
Eisenhower, the supreme commander who defeated Hitler’s war machine, could have barnstormed the country telling Americans they would be much safer with his protégé’s hand on the nuclear trigger. But Ike waited for a call that never happened. Nixon’s vanity proved too great. He went on to lose a race he surely could have won.
Enter now, 62 years later, Rep. Kevin McCarthy. He is no fan of Trump. In that regard, the feeling is mutual. McCarthy no doubt blames Trump for the GOP’s failure to win the predicted significant majority in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections.
The resulting slim majority has left McCarthy, once a sure winner for speaker of the House, vulnerable to the small “Never Kevin” cabal of five GOP members of the House. They seemed determined to humiliate McCarthy before the American people. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr fought over the presidency for seven days in 1801. The House of Representatives, required to break the deadlock, voted 36 times before Jefferson won.
McCarthy’s support likely will not hold for four ballots, much less 36. The GOP will not want to look amateurish to a national audience. McCarthy knows he may have to drop out of the speakership race if his “Never Kevin” detractors don’t lose their nerve.
But McCarthy can make a daring move: Ask Donald Trump for help. In that regard Trump would be wise to accept. The former president’s politics are increasingly seen by GOP swing voters as a “me” thing, not a “we” thing. Such a strategy still might win him a third GOP presidential nomination, but it won’t win back the White House. As the final report of the Jan. 6committee makes clear, even the president’s closest advisors don’t believe he won the 2020 election.
Trump could turn the tables on his detractors by doing the very thing they claim he will never do: Put the interests of Republican voters over his own vanity. He may hold GOP legislators like McCarthy in contempt. But they were elected by the very voters Trump will need to have any chance to win back the White House.
The strategy seems clear. Privately offer McCarthy to get some concessions for the Gang of 5. Then invite the Never Kevin cabal to Mar-a-Lago. Hammer out a deal to back McCarthy. The Gang of 5 will get a reward as well, although, the payoff will be several months down the road allowing everyone to deny a crass quid pro quo.
Suddenly Trump is the only Republican who can bring the factions together and avert a speakership crisis. Admittedly, it would involve a lot of smoke and mirrors, for they all will be smiling for the cameras while keeping a steady hand on their switchblades.
Yet in one deft move, Trump starts the first year of the presidential nomination cycle with a big win. Trump can brag that he is the only one who could have cemented such a deal. McCarthy gets to be speaker. Admittedly, it’s not the path he wanted. But at least he will have avoided Nixon’s mistake.
Everyone wins except Trump’s opponents. The unity will be short lived. But in hindsight, Nixon would have been far better off swallowing his pride and asking Ike for help.
Paul Goldman is a Richmond, Va., based attorney and former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
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