Power entirely for its own sake: Where begging and pleading to become House Speaker leaves the nation
Early in the morning of January 7, shortly after midnight, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California won enough votes to become speaker of the House of Representatives. Not since 1860, when it took 44 ballots to elect New Jersey’s William Pennington as a compromise candidate, has it taken 15 ballots to elect a speaker.
The spectacle of a majority unable to muster the votes to elect a speaker, while the Democratic opposition stayed united behind House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), raised ridicule across the country. McCarthy tried to put a good spin on it but inadvertently undercut confidence in his leadership when he, now the leader of the House, told reporters: “This is the great part…. Because it took this long, now we learned how to govern.”
But there is no doubt that the concessions he made to extremist Republicans to win their votes mean he has finally grasped the speaker’s gavel from a much weaker position than previous speakers. “He will have to live the entirety of his speakership in a straitjacket constructed by the rules that we’re working on now,” one of the extremist ring leaders, Matt Gaetz (R-FL) told reporters. Gaetz later explained away his willingness to accept McCarthy after vowing never to support McCarthy by saying “I ran out of things I could even imagine to ask for.”
In his acceptance speech, McCarthy first thanked the House clerk, Cheryl Johnson, who presided over the drawn-out fight. Johnson was chosen by Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) when she became speaker in 2018, and has served since 2019. Her work through the chaotic process was impressive.
McCarthy promised that the Republicans recognized that their responsibility was not to themselves or their conference, but to the country, but then went on to lay out a right-wing wish list for investigations, business deregulation, and enhanced use of fossil fuels, along with attacks on immigration, “woke indoctrination” in public schools, and the 87,000 new IRS agents funded by the Inflation Reduction Act to enforce tax laws.
Somewhat oddly, considering the Biden administration’s focus on China and successful start to the repatriation of the hugely important chip industry, McCarthy promised that the Republicans would essentially jump on Biden’s coattails, working to counter communist China and bring jobs home. McCarthy promised that Republicans would “be a check and provide some balance to the President’s policies.”
It was a speech that harked back to the past 40 years of Republican ideology, although he awkwardly invoked Emanuel Leutze’s heroic 1851 painting of Washington crossing the Delaware to suggest that America is a land in which “every individual is equal” and “we let everybody in the boat.” Despite the language of inclusion, just as the Republicans have since 1980, he emphasized that the Republicans would center the “hardworking taxpayer.” The Republican conference repeatedly jumped to its feet to applaud his promises, but it felt rather like listening to a cover band playing yesterday’s hits.
Immediately after his victory, McCarthy thanked the members who stayed with him through all the votes, but told reporters: “I do want to especially thank President Trump. I don’t think anybody should doubt his influence. He was with me from the beginning…. He would call me and he would call others…. Thank you, President Trump.”
Aaron Rupar of Public Notice pointed out that “McCarthy going out of his way to gush over Trump at a time when his influence is clearly diminished & political brand is more toxic to mainstream voters than ever—especially on the anniversary of the insurrection—is notable & indicative of who he’ll be beholden to as speaker.”
I would go a step further and say that embracing Trump after his influence on the Republican Party has made it lose the last three elections suggests that, going forward, the party is planning either to convince more Americans to like the extremism of the MAGA Republicans—which is unlikely—or to restrict the vote so that opposition to that extremism doesn’t matter.
Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, signed into law on January 6 a series of changes in election law that include requiring a photo ID rather than permitting people to use other government documents or utility bills, shortening the time for returning ballots and fixing errors in them (called “curing”), prohibiting curbside voting, and limiting ballot drop boxes to one per county.
Also, a panel of three federal judges ruled that South Carolina’s First Congressional District is an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Following the 2020 census, the Republican-dominated legislature moved 62% of the Black voters previously in that district into the Sixth District, turning what had recently been a swing district into a staunchly Republican one that Republican Nancy Mace won in November by 14 percentage points. District Judge Richard M. Gergel said: “If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know someone put it there…. This is not a coincidence.”
In contrast to McCarthy stood Minority Leader Jeffries, who used the ceremonial handing over of the speaker’s gavel from the Democrats to the Republicans to give a barn-burning speech. He began by praising “the iconic, the heroic, the legendary” former House speaker Nancy Pelosi as “the greatest speaker of all time,” and offering thanks to her lieutenants Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Jim Clyburn (D-SC).
He reviewed the laws the Democrats have passed in the past two years—the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, gun safety legislation, the CHIPS & Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, among others. “It was one of the most consequential congresses in American history,” he said, accurately. He called for Democrats to continue the fight for lower costs, better paying jobs, safer communities, democracy, the public interest, economic opportunity for all, and reproductive freedom.
“As Democrats,” he said, “we do believe in a country for everyone…. We believe in a country with liberty and justice for all, equal protection under the law, free and fair elections, and yes, we believe in a country with the peaceful transfer of power.
“We believe that in America our diversity is a strength—it is not a weakness—an economic strength, a competitive strength, a cultural strength…. We are a gorgeous mosaic of people from throughout the world. As John Lewis would sometimes remind us on this floor, we may have come over on different ships but we’re all in the same boat now. We are white. We are Black. We are Latino. We are Asian. We are Native American.
“We are Christian. We are Jewish. We are Muslim. We are Hindu. We are religious. We are secular. We are gay. We are straight. We are young. We are older. We are women. We are men. We are citizens. We are dreamers.
“Out of many, we are one. That’s what makes America a great country, and no matter what kind of haters are trying to divide us, we’re not going to let anyone take that away from us, not now, not ever. This is the United States of America….
“So on this first day, let us commit to the American dream, a dream that promises that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to provide a comfortable living for yourself and for your family, educate your children, purchase a home, and one day retire with grace and dignity.”
In this moment of transition, he said, the American people want to know what direction the Congress will choose. The Democrats offer their hand to Republicans to find common ground, Jeffries said, but “we will never compromise our principles. House Democrats will always put American values over autocracy…
“benevolence over bigotry, the Constitution over the cult, democracy over demagogues, economic opportunity over extremism, freedom over fascism, governing over gaslighting, hopefulness over hatred, inclusion over isolation, justice over judicial overreach, knowledge over kangaroo courts, liberty over limitation, maturity over Mar-a-Lago, normalcy over negativity, opportunity over obstruction, people over politics, quality of life issues over QAnon, reason over racism, substance over slander, triumph over tyranny, understanding over ugliness, voting rights over voter suppression, working families over the well-connected, xenial over xenophobia, ‘yes, we can’ over ‘you can’t do it,’ and zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation. We will always do the right thing by the American people.”
The torch has indeed passed to a new generation, at least of Democrats. Between them and the extremists in his own ranks, McCarthy has his work cut out for him.
Alex Brandon (AP) and Andrew Harnik (AP)
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics