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The ‘messy’ GOP Speaker’s contest pleased Democrats, media, and America’s enemies

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., listens during the twelfth round of voting in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, on Jan. 6, 2023.

“Chaotic,” “shambolic,” “a spectacle.” Those were among the terms used even by some Republican House members after only a few of the 15 roll-call votes it took for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to secure the Speakership he had long coveted. President Biden called the proceedings “embarrassing” for America, but House Democrats and many in the media could hardly contain their glee over the Republicans’ predicament. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) said they were “salivating. … The schadenfreude is palpable.” Meanwhile, one-half of one of the three branches of the U.S. government remained out of commission.

Yet, despite the potentially dire national security implications and Democrats’ pledges to cooperate with Republicans in the new Congress, not a single member of the Democratic Caucus would break ranks and give McCarthy the one vote he needed on the 14th ballot. Had just one acted in the national interest, rather than marching lockstep in narrow partisanship, McCarthy could not have been coerced into making the procedural and institutional concessions Democrats described as “extremist” and retrograde.  

Democrats certainly had no political or even moral obligation to pull Republican chestnuts out of the fire. It would have required a profile in courage more in keeping with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ (D-N.Y.) pledge, “We will always do the right thing for the American people.”  The tacit alliance between the GOP “extremists” and the Democrats that vilify them continues.

It was a reminder of the cynical game Democrats and their donors played in last year’s midterm elections, pouring tens of millions of dollars into campaigns to help the most extreme candidates in Republican primaries, including election deniers and Donald Trump acolytes, as their weakest November opponents.  

The strategy succeeded in many cases, but even when it failed and the “dangerous” Republicans won, the Democrats turned on a dime and condemned the very “extremists” they had helped to promote. The first fruit of their devious gambit was the Speaker’s fight, when 20 anti-McCarthy members exploited the narrow GOP majority to wield vastly disproportionate influence — with consequences yet to unfold over the next two years.

Some GOP members who initially opposed McCarthy described the proceedings more positively.  “We are showing the American people that this process works,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.). “This was democracy in action,” agreed Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.).  

The world’s leading authoritarian tyrants concurred with the arguments from both sides — that the situation was chaotic, and that it is endemic to democratic systems. They relished it as typifying the flaws and inadequacies of democratic governance, especially the much-vaunted and much-resented American variety.

The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece organ, Global Times, said the impasse was “not a simple farce but … aggravation of the disease of the U.S. political system. … [It] has declined and its political ecology has deteriorated.” 

Gallagher, who is expected to chair the House Select Committee on China, agreed that the American system can be tempestuous but saw it as a positive, not something to hide or regret:  “[D]emocracy is messy by design. And that’s a feature, not a bug of our system. We air it all out in the open for the American people to see.”

While China and other enemies of the West relished the congressional paralysis, none dared to exploit the political vacuum that for a week seemed interminable. They know from experience that presenting a threat from a foreign enemy would be the surest way to unite America’s squabbling political partisans. As former isolationist Sen. Arthur Vandenberg said after America entered World War II, “Politics stops at the water’s edge.”

Of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin was already mired in the winter mud of Ukraine, struggling vainly to sustain his failed aggression there. China’s Xi Jinping was also desperately flailing with a disaster of his own making: the harsh COVID lockdown and reckless swing to virtual abandonment of all containment measures.

Both calamities, caused by centralized, non-participatory decision-making, undercut any claims of superior governance from the dictators. And North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Iran’s ayatollahs were not about to take advantage of the congressional paralysis without full support from their distracted senior partners in domestic and international crime.      

The Speaker’s contest was historic not only because of its turbulent process but, potentially, for the reforms it produced, making the House more widely participatory than it was under former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The effort to control federal spending is also laudable — if it is carried out responsibly. But a freeze on the budget at fiscal year 2022 levels could have dangerous national security repercussions if, as reported, it would mean effectively a $75 billion reduction in defense spending. That would be a perilous course for the nation given the increased military needs generated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s aggressive moves against Taiwan and other Indo-Pacific nations, echoing the complex challenges of the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.

No discussion of political cynicism would be complete without reference to the role played by Trump, the person most directly responsible for the fragility of the Republicans’ House majority and their failure to regain control of the Senate.

Trump personally selected and advocated for the deficient, and mostly losing, Republican primary candidates that Democrats exploitatively joined in supporting and eventually destroyed.  The Trump-Democratic synergy of efforts also produced the defeat of two Republican incumbent senators in Georgia’s 2021 runoff election and loss of the GOP Senate majority. That same year, it almost stymied the GOP victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election. In 2022, Trump failed miserably in his effort to ensure the defeat of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for not helping his attempt to steal Georgia’s electors in 2020. Trump preferred Democrat Stacy Abrams, who had denied her own election defeat by Kemp in 2018.

In the Speaker’s contest, Trump supposedly supported McCarthy but only half-openly after McCarthy fell short on several early ballots. The presumed Trump loyalists continued to block McCarty anyway. “The first time Trump spoke out and kind of pushed these members, people ignored him,” former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.” “Some of them even vocally said, ‘We don’t really care.’”

When McCarthy finally garnered the necessary majority by delivering the concessions demanded by the GOP rebels, Trump was quick to jump to the head of the parade and claim credit for himself. “I greatly helped Kevin McCarthy attain the position of Speaker of the House. … I did our Country a big favor!”

McCarthy paid the demanded obeisance to Trump: “I do want to especially thank President Trump. I don’t think anybody should doubt his influence. He was with me from the beginning.” But, the nation saw what really happened — and it was further evidence of Trump’s waning influence in the party. As they look to 2024, Republicans should resist efforts by McCarthy, Trump, or anyone else to allow his political resuscitation.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags 118th Congress Biden China House speaker vote Iran Mike Gallagher North Korea political divisions Russia

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