The remarkable drama played out on the floor of the House of Representatives this past week was captured by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board under the headline, “The Price for Speaker McCarthy,” and then their summarizing sentences, “Mr. McCarthy may regret the high price he paid for the honor of being called Speaker. The country may regret it too.”
The Journal’s marque columnist, Peggy Noonan, was more direct. “It was a bit of a disaster, bad for America and its conservative party (they don’t know who they are anymore). Some of the spectacle connects in my mind to the fact that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had a longtime idea that he must be speaker, and would do anything for it … and in the end, he made the kind of concessions that make a speakership hardly worth having.”
The German fable about the Faustian Bargain, made famous by the German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, tells of a man who is willing to trade his soul to the devil in exchange for all the knowledge in the world and the power and influence that goes with it.
More recently “The Lord of the Rings,” a J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, tells of the covetousness for power that can be fulfilled by owning “The Ring,” a sinister outcome that afflicted both Gollum and Bilbo Baggins.
But this week’s political drama was more than a modern moral allegory about the weakness and lust for power of one man. The drama in the House was a conspiracy of opportunists who sought to acquire power without trekking the meritorious pathways of experience or accomplishment. Opposition to Mr. McCarthy was a rump rebel group of neophytes who realized there was an opportunity to ascend to powerful positions on congressional committees by holding McCarthy hostage to their demands — demands for power.
On this point, the Journal’s editorial page opines, “Don’t believe the happy talk that this was a healthy display of deliberative democracy. This was a power play. A group of backbenchers saw an opportunity to exploit the narrow GOP margin of five seats to put themselves in positions of power that they hadn’t earned through seniority or influence with colleagues.”
Of the whole ordeal, the New York Times reported that former speaker Newt Gingrich’s take was that, “He’s (Rep. Matt Gaetz) essentially bringing the ‘Lord of the Flies’ to the House of Representatives.
Perhaps Alice Stewart, a Republican communications consultant said it best. “A lot of these people get into Congress, and they get drunk on the red light of the camera.”
Now that Mr. McCarthy has ascended to the powerful position of Speaker of the House after an unprecedented 15 ballots, has he in fact become the titular leader of an ungovernable Congress? Because of concessions made by Mr. McCarthy, any member of the majority in Congress can now move to “vacate the chair,” the equivalent of the parliamentary vote of “no confidence” in the speaker. The threat to do this could make the speaker a hand puppet of any opposition member or group like the Freedom Caucus that challenged his nomination to be speaker.
Apart from the fractious voting spectacle on the Republican side of the congressional aisle this past week, there are other reasons to be concerned about governance not only in Washington but also in America’s statehouses. Performative politics is on the increase. Some attribute its rise to social media and its various digital platforms that allow politicians to increase their social capital at the expense of being in service to the nation’s needs. In other words, how can I elevate my image, draw public attention, boost my Twitter and Instagram fan base under the guise of public service.
The performative activism on display this past week by 20 political rebels is, I’m afraid, symptomatic of a larger “social virus” threatening the health and well being of our nation writ large.
This spring, we will face an inevitable disruptive debate over increasing the debt ceiling. The fiscal fight will impact the financial markets and if we fail to find a bipartisan solution, not only will social programs and defense budgets be affected but a default on our national debt would affect prices, inflation, the stock market and potentially a downgrading of the U.S. credit rating.
This spring, the war in Ukraine will likely evolve to a serious pivot point, requiring strong leadership and support from the West.
The point here is simply this. We are in desperate need of statesman-like leadership, not performative political acts. The “my-precious” lust for power in the twin towers of our government do not give promise to the qualities that we the people are looking for in these trying times. It’s time to dismiss these pathological egotists from the halls of our Capitol and to install the leadership in Congress we need and deserve.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.