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TRUST FALL FAIL: THE KEVIN MCCARTHY STORY
My argument from Tuesday’s newsletter, “Why Democrats Should Keep McCarthy” did not carry the day. At all.
It attracted a lot of heat on X (and a little on Threads), eventually drawing the attention of a Democratic congressional aide named Aaron Fritschner. He then posted an X thread of his own, explaining why House Democrats did not trust McCarthy enough to deem him worth saving.
Regardless of where you stand, I think our back-and-forth sheds some important light on what happened.
But first, here’s what we have at the Washington Monthly website on the historic vacating of the House speaker:
- Matthew Cooper’s “The Day After the McCarthy Ouster” traces the long history of House Republican intra-party coups back to “the cannibalistic culture” created in the 1990s by Newt Gingrich. Click here to read the full story.
- A 2005 throwback from Benjamin Wallace-Wells profiling a then-rising House conservative star named Patrick McHenry, who is now serving as acting speaker. Click here to read the full story.
- And my own post-coup take: “Dumping Kevin McCarthy Was Easy. Keeping the Government Open Will Be Hard.” Click here to read the full story.
My argument for keeping McCarthy was that, at this moment, all Democrats need and could get from a Republican Speaker was averting a debt default and keeping the government open.
While Republicans will likely take the initial blame for provoking a shutdown, a protracted disruption of government activity could seriously harm economic growth, and a needless recession could doom Joe Biden’s re-election.
Fritschner’s counterargument (which you can read here) is McCarthy did not deserve credit for either the debt limit deal or last weekend’s surprise stopgap bill, known as a continuing resolution, keeping the government open.
Of the latter, he wrote:
On Saturday morning we had no idea what was happening. Scalise told the GOP they were moving bills that signaled imminent shutdown. This is what we expected. Then McCarthy suddenly and unexpectedly did an about face and announced a vote on a CR [continuing resolution]. We didn’t know what to make of it … McCarthy has resisted doing this all along, the wingnuts threatened to kick him out if he did it and he was running every play at their call. My immediate read was he wanted and expected us to vote against the suspension so we would be blamed for a shutdown … Our members believed it, in fact without naming names I can say I heard it from multiple members…
When McCarthy went on CBS’s Face The Nation Sunday and claimed Democrats “were willing to let the government shutdown for our military not to be paid” (words played at the House Democratic caucus meeting ahead of the vacate vote), that led Democrats to affirm their suspicions.
Also, Democrats have been accusing McCarthy of reneging on the debt limit deal by offering spending bills with cuts deeper than the deal’s spending caps would allow. Fritschner argued that the October legislative schedule McCarthy’s team circulated last week, with plans for more floor consideration of individual spending bills, suggested he wasn’t done pushing “crazy cuts and abortion restrictions.”
McCarthy is no hero, but I don’t think the totality of his actions square with this uncharitable assessment.
To truly reneg on the debt limit deal would require McCarthy declaring there is no way he would ever accept spending levels that matched the deal’s caps. He never did that.
I’m sure McCarthy would have liked to find a way to wrangle some more spending cuts and policy riders. I would not be surprised if thought Democrats might reject the stopgap bill (on the grounds it lacked any additional Ukraine aid), saving him the trouble of owning any shutdown.
But that is the larger point: he did not want to own any shutdown. He wasn’t willing to make crazy cuts and abortion restrictions a condition for keeping the government open.
Moreover, there was no way to get such right-wing pipe dreams through a Democratic Senate, let alone earn the president’s signature, a reality I assume McCarthy must have understood.
But McCarthy had an impossible task trying to get unanimous acceptance of that reality from his House GOP conference, prompting him to engage in an inordinate amount of kabuki.
McCarthy didn’t trust his own Republicans enough to verbalize reasonable expectations for what a final bill would look like. He didn’t trust Democrats enough to explain the underlying intent of his machinations. And Democrats didn’t trust McCarthy enough to believe, at the end of the day, he would stick to the budget deal and continue to keep the government open.
It was not a good time for McCarthy to try a trust fall.
Democrats need not shed tears because McCarthy had a failure to communicate.
Still, as I argue in today’s column, Democrats do have to worry about what comes next, because the path to avoid a protracted shutdown is no longer visible.
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