The New McCarthyism

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” That seems to be Kevin McCarthy’s favorite mantra. Friday night, on the 15th vote for speaker of the House, he finally got his moist little palm around Nancy Pelosi’s still-warm gavel. Welcome to the new Republican-ish speaker of the House! 

The contest was brutal, occasionally absurd, and the occasion of hilarity and consternation among the punditocracy on both the Right and the Left. The Left clucked their tongues about the “chaos” on view on the other side of the aisle. Some among the GOP agreed and wondered why “their side” could not govern as effectively as the Democrats. Would Nancy Pelosi have put up with this level of dissension among the Democratic rank and file? Others said, no, no, the 20 freedom caucus members (and others) holding up the inevitable were just giving the world a reality show, live-action look at how “democracy” (if not quite Our Democracy™) works and should work. 

I am of two minds about that. My own take is that McCarthy is an unreliable ally for those on the Right. He was only too happy to shovel billions of your and your children’s money to Ukraine while doing little to secure our southern border. McCarthy is from California, so, naturally, he likes to spend money. He even got behind such improvident and mendacious schemes as raiding Medicare to pay for the U.S. Postal Service. He was happy to fund the January 6 kangaroo court, grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, and support mandates for the useless—indeed, dangerous—COVID vaccine for the military. In plain terms, his voting record is only intermittently conservative.  

Kevin McCarthy, in short, is a swamp creature masquerading as a swamp critic. The Swamp loves its own, and so it was no surprise that McCarthy eventually prevailed, just barely. He did so at considerable cost to the power of the speaker’s office but also considerable benefit to people who care about accountability. 

McCarthy had to make many concessions to his vociferous opponents in order to entice enough of them to his side (or in the case of a couple, to absent themselves from the House so that McCarthy could win with fewer than 218 votes). Henceforth, a single Congressman can move to remove the speaker. A new committee modeled after the “Church Committee” will be empaneled to investigate abuse by the FBI, the CIA, and other intelligence services. More generally, three members of the Freedom Caucus are guaranteed seats on the nine member and all important Rules Committee. That’s not a majority, but it is an agenda-influencing percentage. 

There were other important concessions, though how and indeed whether they will happen is not clear. I am keen on term limits, and so were the holdouts. They got McCarthy to agree to put the matter to a vote, though I don’t know anyone who believes that this popular idea (popular with those not holding office, that is) has a ghost of a chance of passing.

More promising is the agreement to end the profligate and insulting practice of passing huge “omnibus” spending packages at the last possible moment so that, as Nancy Pelosi said about a previous assault on fiscal sanity, you “have to pass it to know what is in it.” Henceforth, or so it was agreed, members of Congress will get at least 72 hours to read bills before they are required to vote on them. That is bad for earmarks, good for accountability. 

The bottom line is that McCarthy’s prerogatives as speaker have been curtailed, which is a good thing. Also, he has made public promises on important matters that it will be difficult to walk away from without cost. At the same time, I get the distinct feeling that not a lot is going to change. Will there be a meaningful investigation of the January 6 protest at the Capitol? (Where was Nancy Pelosi? Why was the offer of deploying the National Guard not accepted? Who, finally, is Ray Epps and was he correct in saying he “orchestrated” the protest and entry into the Capitol?) Will the partisan and grotesquely un-democratic actions of the January 6 committee presided over by anti-Trump fanatics receive the scrutiny they deserve? I doubt it. 

I expect the changes to the people’s business-as-usual to be mostly cosmetic under the reign of this new McCarthyism. I might, of course, be proved wrong. I hope I will be. 

Above all, what just happened in Washington reminded me that Democrats as a group understand power and how to use it much better than Republicans do. The 18th-century Whig writer and politician Horace Walpole once remarked that “no country was ever saved by good men, because good men will not go to the length that may be necessary.” That Machiavellian observation may be unedifying. It may also be true. I note that Donald Trump, much to the surprise of some, endorsed McCarthy after the third vote ended in failure. Trump’s support did not seem to move the needle much one way or the other. Perhaps that is a sign of his faltering political support. Perhaps it is a sign of his canniness. We’ll know the answer to that soon.

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