Among the many reassessments by Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the United States House, after his successful debt ceiling negotiations, the one with the broadest implications is that of journalist Matthew Continetti, who wrote in The Washington Free Beacon that “McCarthy’s superpower is his desire to be Speaker of the House. He likes and wants his job.”
If you hadn’t followed American politics over the last few decades, this would seem like a peculiar statement: What kind of speaker of the House wouldn’t want the job?
But part of what has gone wrong with American institutions lately is the failure of leading figures to consider their jobs as ends in themselves. Congress, in particular, has been gripped by what Yuval Levin, a political analyst at the American Business Institute, describes as a “platform” mentality, in which ambitious lawmakers and senators treat their offices as places to stand and be seen — as talking heads. , movement leaders, future presidents– rather than roles to fill and opportunities to serve.
On the Republican side, this trend has taken many forms, from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s desire to be a “Great Man in History” to Senator Ted Cruz’s ambitious grandeur in the Barack Obama years to the rise of performance artists. in the era of Donald Trump, like Marjorie Taylor Greene. And the party’s institutionalist lawmakers, from negotiators like John Boehner to policy pundits like Paul Ryan, often seem like miserable prisoners of talking heads, celebrity brands and presidential hopefuls.
That dynamic seemed likely to trap McCarthy as well, but he found a different way to deal with it: he invited some of the bomb-throwers into the legislative process, trying to transform them from platform seekers into lawmakers, giving them a stake in governance and has, so far, been rewarded with crucial support from figures like Greene and Thomas Massie, Kentucky’s quirky libertarian.
And it’s clear that part of what makes this possible is McCarthy’s enthusiasm for the real work of counting votes and the control required of his position, and his lack of Gingrichian egomania and impatience.
But McCarthy is not operating in a vacuum. The Joe Biden era has been good for institutionalism in general, because the president himself seems to understand and appreciate the nature of his office more than Obama ever did. As my colleague Carlos Lozada noted on our podcast last week, in both the Senate and the White House, Obama was filled with a palpable impatience with all the limitations on his actions. This constantly showed up in his negotiating strategy, where he tended to use his own cabinet as a platform, lecturing Republicans on what they should support, and thus steering them away from an early deal.
While Biden, who really enjoyed being a senator, is clearly comfortable with quiet negotiation on any reasonable basis, which is crucial to keeping the other side involved in negotiation. And he’s also comfortable letting the spinning machine run on both sides of the aisle, rather than constantly imposing his own rhetorical narrative on whatever bargain Republicans can strike.
Another crucial element in the healthier environment is the absence of what Ted Cruz brought to the debt ceiling negotiations under Obama — the kind of all-encompassing maximalism designed to build a presidential brand that turns normal negotiation into an existential struggle.
Expecting this kind of maximalism from Republicans, some liberals continued to call on Biden for intransigence long after it became clear that what McCarthy wanted was more in line with previous debt ceiling bargains. But the speaker’s reasonableness was tenable because of the absence of a key Republican senator in Cruz’s absolutist role.
Instead, the most notable populist Republican elected in 2022, JD Vance, has been busy seeking deals with Democrats on issues like rail safety and bank executive pay, or adding an amendment to the debt ceiling bill, although he voted against it. —as if he, no less than McCarthy, really liked and wanted his current job.
One reason for the demise of show-offs like Ted Cruz is Trump’s continued presence as the GOP personality to whose eminence no senator can reasonably aspire. At least until 2024, it’s clear that the only way Trump can be ousted is through the counterprogramming offered by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is selling himself – we’ll see how successful he is – as the candidate of governance and competence; no celebrity or major demagogue is walking through that door.
So, for now, there are more benefits to legislative normalcy for ambitious Republicans and less temptation to platform mentality than there would be if Trump’s role were available.
Whatever happens, it will be years before this role becomes clear. If so, McCarthy might be happily in his job for much longer than anyone watching his torturous rise would have expected.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
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