Burning Down the House
Unlike most others, this column is not about something that happened. It’s about something that’s happening before our very eyes. A work in progress: the destruction of the House of Representatives as a serious, credible, legislative body – unraveling in the context of this week’s embarrassing attempt by House Republicans to elect a new Speaker.
It didn’t start with Kevin McCarthy. Republicans have been undermining the legitimacy of the House ever since Newt Gingrich. In turn, Gingrich, John Boehner, and Paul Ryan each gave more and more power to the most extreme elements of the Republican Caucus. Until Kevin McCarthy surrendered to them entirely. And now, no matter who ends up stuck with the job, it won’t be the new Speaker running the House. The inmates have taken over the asylum.
It’s been painful to watch. Nobody deserved to be so publicly humiliated on national television. After years of sacrificing whatever was left of his manhood for the job, after begging for support and promising anybody anything they wanted, after (as of this writing) struggling through multiple agonizing ballots in which Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries got more votes than he did, he still couldn’t round up 218 votes to become Speaker of the House.
Nobody deserved to be so publicly humiliated. Nobody except Kevin McCarthy. Whatever public humiliation he suffered, he has nobody to blame but himself.
Republican or Democrat, friend or foe, the one thing anybody who’s ever served with McCarthy in Sacramento or in Washington agrees on is that he believes in nothing but himself. As a former Republican House staffer told the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer, his main strength is his total malleability. In McCarthy, there are no core red lines, no core beliefs, no inviolable principles. Which, in the end, meant that nobody, not even the crazies he cultivated, could really trust him.
“Kevin basically is whatever you want him to be,” former Congressman Bill Thomas, for whom McCarthy was a staffer for 15 years, told the New Yorker. “He lies. He’ll change the lie if necessary. How can anyone trust his word?” As many members of the Republican Caucus learned, you can’t.
Ironically those who ended up trusting McCarthy the least were those he courted the most: Members of the Freedom Caucus. The crazies like Matt Gaetz, Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Paul Gosar. No matter how many QAnon conspiracy theories they spread nor how many white supremacist rallies they attended, he never criticized or disciplined them. He promised them war on Hunter Biden. He offered them committee chairmanships. He agreed that any one of them could dethrone a Speaker.
But, rather than gain their trust, McCarthy only lost it. If he’d bend over so easily for us, they figured, why wouldn’t he do the same thing for Mitch McConnell or Joe Biden? In the end, when he really needed them – except for Marjorie Taylor Greene (who knows what he promised her privately?) – all the hardline conservatives rewarded McCarthy by turning on him and eating him alive.
McCarthy made the same fatal mistake with Donald Trump. For four years, he was happy to sit on Trump’s lap. He took pride in Trump’s calling him “My Kevin.” On January 6, he briefly broke with Trump, but by January 28 he was in Mar-a-Lago kissing Trump’s butt and absolving him of any responsibility for the assault on the Capitol. And what did his slavish loyalty to Trump gain him in the speakership battle? Nothing.
As of this writing, anything could happen. McCarthy could still squeak out a win. But that’s no longer the central issue. What matters now is no longer who ends up being Speaker, but what Republicans have done to the House of Representatives. They have finally succeeded in turning the House over to a handful of anti-government hardliners whose stated goal is to, in effect, shut government down entirely, not direct its power to help the American people.
Look at the record of the most recent GOP Speakers: Newt Gingrich, forced to resign; Bob Livingston, chosen as Speaker but resigned before being elected because of a sex scandal; Dennis Hastert, resigned and went to prison for sex abuse; John Boehner, forced to resign; Paul Ryan, forced to resign. And whoever ends up as new Speaker, serving in name only, having surrendered all power.
If this week’s chaos in the House proves nothing else, it proves that Republicans are not only not interested in governing, they are incapable of it.
(Bill Press is host of The BillPressPod, and author of 10 books, including: “From the Left: My Life in the Crossfire.” His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Readers may also follow him on Twitter @billpresspod.)
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