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Kevin McCarthy Is Pretty Good At This
Holding the coalition together and notching wins
Don’t look now, but Kevin McCarthy is turning out to be good at this job. First, an item from Politico on how the deal came together:
It started in late January, when a group of House and Senate conservatives gathered around Sen. Rick Scott’s dining room table to try to solve a seemingly impossible problem. Given McCarthy’s slim majority — and the reality that many on his right flank had never voted to lift the debt ceiling — could conservatives write a bill that would unite the party and give it at least a bit of leverage in talks with the White House?
The answer came Wednesday afternoon, when McCarthy muscled through his debt plan in the House’s most consequential vote since he won the speakership on Jan. 7. It was a huge relief for a speaker who faces the constant risk of a conservative rebellion — but the GOP elation over passage of a bill that will never become law also marked one more example of the party’s right flank shaping its congressional strategy at nearly every turn.
“The expectation was, moderates in the House have got to, at some point in time, come the way of really where I think Republicans are nationally: more conservative. Stop the spending spree,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who attended the weekly House-Senate dinner meetings at the spacious Capitol Hill townhouse of his Florida Republican colleague.
Though McCarthy and his leadership were able to satisfy their conservative wing, it came with big sacrifices that nearly blew up their plans along the way. And it’s unclear that the fractious House GOP conference can maintain even that level of unity through the next stage of the fight — dealmaking with Democrats.
Still, conservatives are rejoicing. Another dinner is scheduled for Wednesday night after passage. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), an attendee of the weekly Scott dinners who’s long pushed his party to take a hard line in debt negotiations, said conservatives’ early maneuvering helped strengthen their hand in the House GOP talks.
“You can’t do this if you just stick to a position and say, ‘My way or the highway.’ You’ve got to go convince people. We put forward proposals that, I think, convinced people that this is the right approach,” Roy said, stressing that the group was working “in concert” with the rest of the GOP conference.
Roy later helped draft the House GOP’s debt bill, a grab bag of conservative policy dreams, as part of intra-conference meetings that McCarthy’s team dubbed the “five families” meetings. That reference to “The Godfather” mafiosos aptly captures the mutual mistrust that sometimes lingers among his members.
Kevin McCarthy rose to the speakership despite being loathed by a lot of very online conservatives and a rump portion of his own party in the House. He had to win that role across multiple votes, which the media pronounced as humiliating, indicative of a GOP incapable of governing and all the normal tropes that partisans such as Jake Tapper deploy in place of real informed analysis of the situation.
This is why they’ve proven to be so utterly wrong about McCarthy’s strength as a leader since taking the gavel. Not only has he shepherded the slim Republican majority through multiple challenging situations in the early months, he’s also notched significant wins: the effective brushback of a White House veto threat on DC crime laws; the passage of HR-1, his energy bill, with bipartisan support; and now, he has garnered the votes necessary to succeed on his debt-ceiling gambit, with the bill passing 217-214.
How did he get here? He learned a lesson prior speakers didn’t — he turned the energy of the populist fiscal conservative right to his benefit instead of making them his adversary.
Republican leadership concedes that conservatives have energy, and many of the recently elected types have great ideas too — but the main gripe of leadership is that conservatives spend more time fighting Republicans than fighting Democrats, more time running down their own team than attacking the other. What’s the best way to handle Terrell Owens? Is it to send him home to do sit-ups in his driveway to teach him a lesson? Or is it to get him the damn ball? Giving an irascible self-absorbed star player a timeout doesn’t teach him a lesson, it just makes things worse. A good coach figures out how to use that talent and get the most out of it; he calls Randy Moss’s number a dozen times and wins.
Unity can’t be achieved by defenestration or by imposition. It’s achieved by recognizing what talents a faction has, and deploying those. Boehner’s win wasn’t a sign of his strength — had Paul Ryan or Jeb Hensarling wanted that job, it’s unlikely he would have it. They view themselves as team players, though, and didn’t jump in. The real failure of this leadership team is the belief that the Tea Party wingers are threats and rivals to be crushed rather than levers to be used. You may think they’re crazy, but properly harnessed and directed, they can actually help you win. The closing scene of Michael Clayton comes to mind, where George Clooney expresses his shock and regret that Tilda Swinton thinks he’s the guy to blow up in a car bomb. “I’m not the guy you kill. I’m the guy you buy!… I’m your easiest problem and you’re gonna kill me?” And that turns him into Shiva the God of Death.
The point at the time was that these conservative aspirants didn’t actually want the jobs of the leadership they were contending with — “they’d rather be fighting about head start block granting than blowing up the team. They want to define the terms of conservative policy flowing into the presidential elections. And their ideas are good. So why not run with them? The need here is for leadership to find productive partisan assignments for the wingers to get their aggro on.”
What McCarthy achieved by bringing Chip Roy, Thomas Massie and Marjorie Taylor Greene to his side in his fight for leadership was that these would-be bomb-throwers are now invested in his success. This deal has to work out, for everyone’s interest to be served. And a debt-ceiling win with a message vote that challenges the Biden administration’s spending without risking default is a major step in that direction. Sometimes, you just let the Wookie win.
How Europe Can Defend Itself
Even if American politics is led by European-friendly primacists for the next generation, and even with a rear-guard effort by the foreign policy establishment to resist, new realities will bear down upon Washington and force it to prioritise the largest, richest near-peer adversary in its history.
This won’t be immediate. The prospect of a drawdown is clouded by Washington’s recent partial re-pivot to Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the contest for primacy in Asia is intensifying, and will soon assert itself at the top of America’s agenda. Only this month, China conducted the largest simulation of a naval blockade against Taiwan, the epicentre of the US-China struggle. This is part of a wider escalating rivalry, with Washington legislating to kneecap China’s microchip imports.
The scale of the challenge to America’s pre-eminence in the Indo-Pacific region is likely to exert a near-gravitational pull on its attention. It will increase the demand on its diplomacy, its military power, its industrial br and presidential time. Americans will be increasingly reluctant to maintain a global posture. Something will have to “give”. And the likeliest candidate will be America’s commitment to wealthy allies in a region where its competitor is 10 times smaller in GDP terms than China, and cannot hope to overrun or dominate the continent. While the US is likely to retain a balancing “hand” in Europe, it will become averse to playing Uncle Sucker.
Faced with this change in priorities, it would be foolish for British or European policymakers to just muddle through and wish away the problem. Even within alleged “special” transatlantic relationships, Washington, like all great powers in history, has unilaterally imposed ruthless policy change, to its allies’ disfavour, with little warning. Recall President Harry Truman’s about-face in the early post-war period, terminating the Lend-Lease Act which transferred war supplies to any nation vital to America’s defence, ending talks over nuclear cooperation, and imposing fixed dollar-pound convertibility, which caused a currency and dollar/gold reserves crisis in Britain.
It would also be imprudent to imagine that the US will delay its withdrawal because the proxy war in Ukraine is comparatively “cheap”. A diversion of 20,000 military personnel into Europe is not cheap, strategically, especially as it also diverts precious air, naval, logistics, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. Neither is it cheap to deplete weapons and munitions stocks to the point where it exceeds capacity to reproduce it.
Instead, given the difficulty of its senior ally sustaining commitments in two theatres at once, it would be wiser to anticipate the shock, and enter into a form of security cooperation, recast from history. This would be an informal channel of cooperation between the leading military states of the region — Britain, France and Poland — that would collectively negotiate the strengthening of capability in the neighbourhood independent of the United States. It would proceed on the common assumption that European powers will soon be forced to shoulder far more of the burden of their own defence, and will have to develop the ability to operate independently of their traditional guarantor. It would work both on a diplomatic level and between military staffs.
The Death and Rebirth of Media
Ten years ago, it was close to consensus opinion that Buzzfeed was the future of news. Their editors spoke the language of the internet, mingling viral listicles and quizzes with spurts of legitimately great reporting funded by the company’s wildly-popular nonsense, and they captured the nation’s attention. The juxtaposition of frivolous bullshit with award-winning journalism looked weird, even offensive, but it felt new, and in keeping with the ethos of the time it was all “free,” which is to say it was funded by advertising revenue.
When old media giants like the New York Times dove into a subscription revenue model, in which readers were expected to pay for writing, the tactic was criticized as hopelessly outdated, and even naïve. But consensus was wrong about pretty much everything, and it’s strange we didn’t see it at the time: “new media” lost with ads, an old strategy that looked new, and old media won with subscriptions, a new strategy that looked old. Sure, a 20th Century paper cost a dollar or whatever, but that hadn’t been the industry’s primary source of revenue since the late 1700s. News was in the business of advertising, and in this regard it was the Times that changed, not Buzzfeed. The Times won. As of last week, Buzzfeed News no longer exists (with rumors VICE is soon to follow), the Times remains dominant, and every upstart media company in town is either employing the formerly “naïve” subscription model, or making use of tools like Substack, which bootstraps the model on their behalf. Next up, something that doesn’t make sense, and is anyway probably not legal: direct competition from the public square.
Until now, social media platforms — which facilitated the prior media war, propelled “new media” companies to prominence, and ultimately drove them all to self-destruction — have remained neutral. Every media company, along with every independent upstart, was permitted to compete in the public square. This is no longer the case.
Fauci’s Laughable NYT Interview
Now on to the pandemic response. Fauci complained that “I happened to be perceived as the personification of the recommendations [lockdowns],” that he only “gave a public-health recommendation that echoed the CDC’s recommendation, and people made a decision based on that.” If he did not want to be the “personification” of pandemic policy, then maybe he should not have played into the panegyrics — like going on the cover of InStyle magazine. And anyway, Fauci can’t claim to have been a mere bystander — he knew very well that his and the CDC’s recommendations were taken and used to enact a very particular set of policies.
Fauci would like to think that public health institutions can look “at it from a purely public-health standpoint. It was for other people to make broader assessments — people whose positions include but aren’t exclusively about public health.” The problem here is that public health institutions are, by their very nature, inseparable from the “broader assessments.” Public health must deal with the public — shocking, but it’s true — and that means there is an interface with policy. That is what makes public health a messy, difficult thing to wrangle with, because you cannot simply make the calculations and run; you have to make the calculations and then mold them into recommendations that are workable for the society to which they will be applied. That did not happen, not because of maliciousness, but because of human error. That is all people want Fauci to admit — actually admit, not massaging an admission with obfuscation and deflection.
By far the most irritating for Cockburn, though, is the moralizing and grumbling about the public’s skepticism of the public health establishment and its recommendations. At the beginning of the condensed interview, Fauci mentions the “smoldering anti-science feeling, a divisiveness that’s palpable politically in this country.” The irony is that Fauci is at the epicenter of the crisis that caused that very “smoldering anti-science feeling.”
Take the mask debacle. At the beginning, in March 2020, Fauci argued that masking was unnecessary, that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” The argument — which, it turns out, was correct — was that masks were not effective enough to wear. Underlying that contention, though, was what those in government felt was a noble lie: the masks were not recommended not because they did not work, but because they wanted to make sure healthcare workers had access to them, primarily the N95. Then, all of a sudden, the guidance did a 180 and masks were not only protective, but mandated. Even when evidence began to pour in that cloth and surgical masks were not effective enough to warrant mandating them, nothing changed. This is why there is a crisis of trust, a “smoldering anti-science feeling”; it is not so much anti-science as it is skepticism of government claims to science.
And then there was the lockdown policy. The doctor said in the interview that “somehow or other, the general public didn’t get that feeling that the vulnerable are really, really heavily weighted toward the elderly. Like 85 percent of the hospitalizations are there.” Why was that the case? It happened because the public health establishment failed to communicate. Fauci would likely disagree: “Did we say that the elderly were much more vulnerable? Yes. Did we say it over and over and over again? Yes, yes, yes.” Fair enough, but the public health institutions paired those warnings with policy recommendations that said the contrary. Why was he suggesting that students still be masked mid-2021? Why were the teachers’ unions so involved in crafting school reopening processes? Where was Fauci when a voice of reason was needed in the school reopening process? He can point to a few meek comments, but where was the pandemic warrior he likes to portray himself as? It was this kind of behavior that helped produce an “anti-science feeling” in the country; it was a lack of honesty, a lack of consistency and the appearance of foul play.
Does Fauci deserve all the blame? Of course not — but nor does he get to exonerate himself either.
Items of Interest
“In every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.”
— Neil Postman