The Kevin McCarthy spectacle bodes ill for the US

His humiliation is unheard of and it is another blow to Donald Trump

Votes are tallied in the House Chamber at the US Capitol in Washington on January 5. Bloomberg
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On Thursday, the US House of Representatives conducted a remarkable 11 inconclusive votes for speaker. This means no representatives can be sworn in and no congressional business done. Republicans, who obtained a razor-thin majority in the November election, appear feckless, disunited, unfit and uninterested in governing. That bodes extremely ill for the country in general over the next two years.

California representative Kevin McCarthy, endorsed as "my Kevin" by former president Donald Trump, is being opposed by about 20 hardliners, leaving Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries consistently coming in first place, supported by all 212 of his Democratic colleagues.

Mr McCarthy has been offering ever-greater concessions, and Mr Trump ordered his followers to get in line, to no avail. The degrading spectacle is a predictable comeuppance for Mr McCarthy, who initially angrily blamed Mr Trump for the January 6 insurrection, only to recant, travel to Florida to bend the knee and kiss his ring, and bow to each and every demand in order to try to gain the speaker's chair. His humiliation is unheard of. And it is another yet devastating defeat for Mr Trump.

Members-elect leave the House Chamber as the third day of elections for Speaker of the House is adjourned. Getty via AFP
Representative Kevin McCarthy on January 5, after being blocked for the 11th time in his bid to become Speaker. Bloomberg

But the inability of the razor-thin Republican majority in the House to even select a speaker raises deafening alarm bells. Congress at a minimum must approve the budget, appropriations bills, and, above all, recurring extensions of the debt ceiling. The last issue is most alarming. The US President, Joe Biden, may be compelled to take unprecedented unilateral action to prevent the US from defaulting on its financial obligations if this current spectacle is anything to judge by.

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But there is nothing significant Mr McCarthy's opponents claim to want that he does not also advocate

The anti-McCarthy holdouts are acting like hostage takers who don't want a ransom. They just want to accumulate hostages. Like Seinfeld, it's a show about nothing. Mr McCarthy has offered everything to the rebels, short of picking up their dry cleaning and babysitting their children. But concessions aren't the point. Disruption, performative anger, chaos, and, especially, television hits are.

Nancy Pelosi, now arguably the greatest House speaker ever, had a comparably narrow margin, and managed to get a great deal done. And the two other protracted speaker confrontations were about immensely substantial disputes.

The issue in 1923 was about farming versus manufacturing interests. And in 1855-56, the quarrel was the expansion of slavery into western territories, which both pro and anti-slavery forces understood would determine the viability of the atrocious practice in the US into the foreseeable future. That was ultimately decided by the US Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history.

But there is nothing significant Mr McCarthy's opponents claim to want that he does not also advocate. Politics for most of the Republican Party has become practically devoid of content – the last party platform merely said it stood for whatever Mr Trump wanted at any given moment – and has instead degenerated into an exercise in theatrical preening and posturing, exactly what is happening on the House floor this week.

You could see it as a dangerous game or a fatal illness. The US has a two-party system, but, historically, parties come and go.

The 1855-56 House speaker contest solidified the emergence of the Republican Party, displacing the dying Whig Party, which had no remaining core or vision. In 1849, the Whigs nominated and secured the election of Zachary Taylor, universally regarded as one of the worst ever US presidents. A dissident a faction of "Conscience Whigs" emerged that eventually formed the basis of the Republican Party. That does not sound unfamiliar.

Given the spectacle in the House this week, all conjecture that the Republican Party may have become radicalised and polarised, even against itself, beyond redemption and political usefulness seems increasingly less far-fetched.

Published: January 06, 2023, 6:00 AM
Updated: January 09, 2023, 8:41 AM