NATIONALE Column: Saving the World Economy or His Own Job? McCarthy can’t make up his mind. | Opinion
After a debt limit negotiation session at the White House this week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy returned to the Capitol and offered reporters an update.
“Let me be very clear,” the California Republican said. “From day one, sitting with the President, I gave him two criteria,” McCarthy said, raising two fingers. “We’re not going to raise taxes because we’re bringing in more money than ever before. And we will not exceed a clean debt ceiling. And we have to spend less than this year.”
Mr. Sprecher, that’s three, uh, “criteria”. This might be the most worrying aspect of the default: U.S. full confidence and creditworthiness are at stake, and the man sitting at President Biden’s negotiating table seems upset.
Under public pressure from the far-right House Freedom Caucus and former President Donald Trump, McCarthy was one moment praising the “honesty” and “professionalism” of White House negotiators and the next moment attacking the other side as “socialist.”
He gives daily updates full of fake statistics, nonsensical anecdotes and malapropisms. His negotiators broke off talks, only to resume them hours later. This week at a meeting of the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives during the height of negotiations, he decided it was the right time to auction a stick of his used lip balm to raise funds for Republicans’ political campaigns in the House of Representatives.
The speaker’s unpredictability has an obvious origin. As usual, he does not lead. It is plagued by countercurrents. If he backs down too much in the talks, he’ll lose his Republican hardliners and could lose his job. If he pleases the hardliners, he keeps his job but plunges the country, and perhaps the world, into economic catastrophe. Its job security or the global economy? McCarthy just can’t make up his mind.
The hardliners’ nihilism — their willingness to collapse the economy if Biden doesn’t meet their full list of demands — gives McCarthy clout (to a degree). In foreign policy, Richard Nixon pioneered the “Theory of the Madman”: if you could fool your enemies into thinking you were crazy and reckless enough to launch a nuclear attack, they would back down. Republicans in the House of Representatives do much the same with a debt default.
Several say they don’t believe the threat of a default is real or as imminent as the Biden administration claims. Some sound like they expect a default and hope voters will blame the president for the resulting economic meltdown. “I think my Conservative colleagues … don’t feel that we should negotiate with our hostage,” R-Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz told Semafor. McCarthy seems to have come to terms with the disaster at times, saying, “Don’t blame me,” and “Don’t blame us Republicans,” and “It’s not my fault.”
Biden, perhaps spooked by the crazies at the table, offered to freeze spending at current levels for next year, which would save $1 trillion over a decade. That was enough to make liberals howl that he had given the store away.
But McCarthy’s problem is that he’s dealing with real crazies on the House Freedom Caucus. During his 15-round bid for speaker’s post, McCarthy gave these far-right hooligans the power to oust him – “vacate the chair” – at will. Now the rumbling has started. After the first signs of an agreement began to emerge on Thursday, 35 members of the parliamentary group wrote to McCarthy, calling the reported details “outrageous” and “absurd” – and insisting that McCarthy make new demands, including immigration restrictions.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Tex., one of the signers, delivered an impassioned, nearly 30-minute speech Thursday afternoon in which he accused McCarthy’s negotiators of “using the first exit to negotiate a deal.” Roy added: “What are the Republicans doing? run away!”
And Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., warned that the rumored deal would “completely crush the Republican majority for this debt ceiling hike.” If McCarthy had to rely heavily on Democrat votes to pass a debt deal, his speaking mandate would be effectively wiped out.
Hence the fluctuations of the speaker. On the morning of May 18, McCarthy said optimistically to CNN’s Manu Raju in Statuary Hall, “I see the way we could come to an agreement,” perhaps by the weekend.
But about four hours later, the Freedom Caucus called it a day, urging that “there shall be no further discussion” unless the Democratic Senate accepts all House Republican demands. Trump reiterated, “REPUBLICANS SHOULD NOT make a debt ceiling deal unless they get everything they want (including the ‘kitchen sink’)…DO NOT FOLD!!!”
The next morning, McCarthy’s negotiators called off talks, saying they had “decided to take a break because it just wasn’t productive.”
It happened again on Monday. Before the White House, McCarthy and one of his negotiators used the word “productive” at least 11 times, as well as “professional,” “intelligent,” and “respectful” after a negotiating session. But the next morning, when McCarthy faced his troubled faction in a closed session, he told them they were “a long way from reaching an agreement”.
And so the world waits while the speaker falters.