In the classic film “Citizen Kane”, there is a scene in which Charles Foster Kane refuses to give up his candidacy for governor after learning that the details of his extramarital affair will be made public. Kane grumbles that no one was going to “deprive him of the love of people in this state”. His antagonist, political boss Jim Gettys, who revealed the affair, is stunned because the scandal means certain defeat for Kane. (It was 1941, after all.) Gettys told Kane, “Along with anyone else, I’d say that would be a lesson for you. But you’re gonna need more than one lesson… and you’re gonna get more than one lesson.
It reminds me of the Republican Party today. Being devastated halfway through should have been a lesson, but one wonders if the GOP will need more than one. The indications are that they will. Already, the Freedom Caucus, appointed for its desire to deny freedom to anyone but itself, is pressuring presumptive House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to engage in the exact same behavior that cost the party a majority in the Senate, a dominant majority in the House, and an impressive number of state and local offices across the country. McCarthy, who wanted to be a speaker enough to take Faust’s lead, will almost certainly relent.
Then there is Donald Trump. In his new run for the presidency, in which, like Kane, he assumes the love of the people, Trump seems driven more by his desperation to avoid prison than to once again take on the responsibility of leading the country. (Of course, for him it was only a part-time job the first time.) One thing is certain, he will use his candidacy to settle scores, real and imagined. Princess Diana may have had her “revenge dress,” but Trump will do her better with the revenge campaign.
It’s not like most Republican leaders and many party operatives who aren’t far-right don’t know better – Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence and a host of others were ready to publicly state that they weren’t too happy that Trump refused to leave the stage even though the play was over. Even Rupert Murdoch, the ultimate opportunist, seems to have asked his minions at Fox News and the New York Post to release Trump.
But that doesn’t mean they’re embracing what tens of millions of voters have shown they want – a functional democracy in which government is used to solve problems rather than rule by personal ambition or pandering to extremes. The most surprising thing about Democrats avoiding the midterm graveyard is that they did so in the face of what appeared to be President Biden’s extreme unpopularity and the belief of nearly three-quarters of Americans that the economy was in bad shape. What Biden and the Democrats had in their favor was that they seemed to be making an effort to actually govern instead of wallowing in blatantly false conspiracy theories or insisting that blatant lies were true. Democrats hammered home the message that democracy itself was on the ballot and voters believed them.
And so, President McCarthy has entered “be careful what you wish for” territory. His choice appears to be to bow down to the Freedom Caucus — and risk further alienating mainstream voters — or try to persuade House Republicans to pretend they are a real political party, with policies and ideas that will improve people’s lives.
The latter will not be an easy task. As Minority Leader, he could hide behind an inability to control the House agenda and try to win voter loyalty simply by opposing the Democrats’ “radical socialist agenda”. But that won’t be enough. Republicans in the House will now set the agenda and whether they’re just investigating arch-criminal Hunter Biden or trying to impeach his father for the high-profile crime of… they’ll think of something. thing… McCarthy might have a rather abbreviated term like speaker.
But McCarthy and his fellow Republicans also have a political problem. Beyond banning abortion and protecting the possession of military-style weapons, they don’t seem to have any. This is a party that has spent so long preying on its opponents that now that they are in power they seem to have no means to stay there.
Then, of course, the question comes back to Trump. Since he originally announced his candidacy for president in 2015, Republicans have been fractured. At first, it seemed irrelevant that many rural conservatives and others whom Hillary Clinton called “a basket of deplorables” were flocking to Trump’s candidacy, as he seemed certain to be swept away like a fly. But in an upset that stunned even Trump himself, he won the election. (A friend sent me a photo taken in the Fox News employee lounge on election night 2016, where the faces of the staff appeared as stunned and horrified as if aliens had landed.)
For the next six years, the party desperately tried to maintain an increasingly fragile coalition. But whereas at first it looked like the party couldn’t win without Trump and his loyalists, it now seems equally clear that it can’t win with them.
The only solution is for McCarthy to challenge the margins of his party and adopt a reasonable conservative platform. There are certainly issues he can do that on, including public spending, over-regulation and bloated bureaucracy. The reason he probably won’t is that he will view it as a risk to his presidency, the loss of which he fears.
And so, McCarthy and his fellow Republican House members will likely continue pushing forward an agenda that, after three elections, has shown them to be fatally flawed. A liberal pundit recently called Donald Trump the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since FDR. Kevin McCarthy, another man who needs more than a lesson, will soon stand by his side.
Lawrence Goldstone’s most recent book is “On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravageing of African American Voting Rights”. This column was provided by Tribune News Service.