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Really, What Could Go Wrong?
Plus: MAGA exports Insurrection
Happy Monday. Joe Biden visits the border, the House GOP wrestles with rules, and rioters in Brazil storm government buildings to overturn a presidential election, “in scenes that hauntingly evoked the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump.”
Old and busted: America, shining city on a hill.
New hotness: America, exporter of Insurrection.
One of the difficulties of punditizing in these vexed days of crazy, is separating what is actually new from the same-old-same-old-seen-this-movie-Goundhog-Day cycle of endless repetition.
We readily concede that there is nothing new under the sun, but as the deeply pathetic Era of Kevin’s Humiliation dawns in the nation’s Capitol, we will endeavor this morning to distinguish the moldy from the quasi-fresh.
By now, you know most of the story about what happened this weekend: the confusion, near-fisticuffs on the House floor, Kevin McCarthy’s relentless surrenders, and finally, his grasp of the shriveled gavel.
But let’s revisit one timeline for a moment:
In the last several weeks, Donald Trump (1) expressed solidarity with the January 6 insurrectionists, (2) dined with a Neo-Nazi, (3) flung racial slurs at the wife of the senate GOP Leader, and (4) called for the termination of the Constitution so that he could be restored to power.
And, yet within minutes of being elected to the third highest Constitutional office in the land — in the early morning hours after the second anniversary of the attack on the Capitol — this is what My Kevin had to say:
And he took this selfie:
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
All of this seems so familiar; the nihilism, truckling toadyism, recklessness, and extremism that the Bulwark has been writing about for the last four years on days that end in “y.”
But now we get a somewhat new-ish chapter where the GOP turns its focus to open warfare over… wait for it… fiscal conservatism. Empowered by McCarthy’s surrender/victory, the born-again fiscal hawks intend “to force the White House to agree to massive spending cuts, threatening a return to the political brinkmanship that once nearly crippled the economy and almost plunged the U.S. government into default.”
Of course this is not new; it’s a loop back to the pre-Trump kamikaze politics of the Tea Party. (Think Ted Cruz and his pointless government shutdowns.)
But while Trump emerged from that ideological fen, Trumpism has never been about frugality, debt reduction, or fiscal conservatism, except in the most aspirational (read bullsh*t) way.
In the Trump Era, the GOP has been far more passionate about waging a culture war than pretending to care about spending and deficits. It’s worth remembering that President 45 added more to the national debt in four years that either Barack Obama of George W. Bush did in their two terms. Even conservative analysts reported that Trump added $7.8 trillion in ten-year budget deficits.
The largest drivers were pandemic-relief legislation ($3.9 trillion), the 2017 tax cuts ($2 trillion), and legislation raising the discretionary spending caps ($1.6 trillion). Other costs included disaster aid and other discretionary spending ($493 billion), repeal of several Affordable Care Act-related taxes ($299 billion), and hundreds of small policies ($201 billion).
For the four years of Trump’s abbreviated reign, Republicans basically did not give a sh*t.
Ah, but what a difference a presidential election makes. Fiscal sanity is back, baby.
As the NYT notes, some of McCarthy’s surrenders to the Freedom Caucus “would make the practical business of running the House next to impossible. It could be left unable to do basic things like fund the government or finance the federal debt. For the dissidents, that was the point. For the country, it could lead to some grim consequences.”
What, exactly is the GOP’s plan?
Wielding the threat of a catastrophic default on the national debt, the GOP’s Real Men of Genius “agreed to drive a hard line in upcoming budget talks, potentially including demands for significant changes to Social Security and Medicare.” Punchbowl also reports that “three of the first 12 bills that the House will vote on are designed to tighten abortion restrictions.”
Really, what could go wrong?
But as Republicans are about to find out, it’s one thing for the right to rail against wokeness and demand endless investigations of the FBI and Hunter Biden’s laptop. It’s quite another to go after Social Security and Medicare, programs that were popular even among Tea Party supporters, and which Trump famously promised to protect.
Besides Social Security and Medicare, Republicans are also threatening deep cuts to the military budget, which will also be a strange new flex for the party of Fire and Fury. Here’s the WSJ editorial board: “Defense Is Now a Republican Target.”)
The reality is that if defense is cut, what will go first is spending for operations and maintenance to sustain military readiness, as well as money for the weapons to deter China. If the GOP rebels honor their demand for “regular order,” defense hawks may have more votes. But it’s worrisome that some Republicans are joining the progressive calls to shrink the military when the world grows more dangerous.
The politics of all of this is, shall we say, deeply problematic.
The dirty secret of the GOP is that Republican voters actually don’t want to cut specific big-ticket federal programs. In 2019, a Hill/HarrisX poll found:
Republican voters, who have traditionally been perceived as favoring reduced government spending, are not keen on cutting federal spending that supports specific areas like health care and disaster relief, according to a new poll.
In a Hill-HarrisX survey of registered voters, majorities of GOP respondents said they did not support reducing federal spending in all 19 budget areas listed, from foreign aid and unemployment relief to infrastructure and education.
This was consistent with a 2019 Pew poll, which found “Little Public Support for Reductions in Federal Spending.”
If Democrats refuse to go along with the cuts (and they will), prepare for the deluge.
The failure to raise the debt ceiling will cause international markets to melt down, recession risks to rise exponentially, and 401ks to evaporate.
Surely, you say, calmer, wiser heads will prevail.
But you only say this if you haven’t been paying attention, because McCarthy’s concessions have stacked the crucial Rules Committee with Freedom Caucus members who are unlikely to allow sane compromises to come to the floor. And, if McCarthy even tries to reach some kind a deal with the White House to save the country from financial disaster, the crazies will move to vacate the chair.
Dysfunction is the point. So strap in, because the chaos theater is about to become very real.
Of course, when the fights begin, none of this may matter to the GOP’s base voters.
Over the weekend, I had breakfast with a smart Republican lawmaker who lamented the fact that politics was no longer about ideas or public policy. Now, he said, it was all about anger.
And 2023 promises to be a very angry year.
A Brazilian January 6
The attack — the most significant threat to democracy in Latin America’s largest nation since a 1964 military coup — came a week after the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to succeed Bolsonaro. It suggested a spreading plague of far-right disrupters in Western democracies, as hard-liners radicalized by incendiary political rhetoric refuse to accept election losses, cling to unfounded claims of fraud and undermine the rule of law
So all this seems quite relevant today:
BONUS: No points for subtlety here. Steve Bannon is openly applauding the coup, calling the rioters “Brazilian freedom Fighters” and posting things like this:
1. That McCarthy PAC Concession? It Could Elect Far-Right Candidates in 2024.
Last Tuesday, the Congressional Leadership Fund, which calls itself “the independent super PAC endorsed by Kevin McCarthy”—that’s lawyer-speak for McCarthy’s super PAC—cut a deal to get right-wing support for his speakership bid. Under the deal, CLF agreed that it will no longer “spend in any open-seat primaries in safe Republican districts.” Nor will it “grant resources to other super PACs to do so.”
That’s a big deal. CLF spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars in the 2022 elections. It can still support Republican incumbents against right-wing challengers, and in swing districts, it can oppose troublemakers in Republican primaries. But in safe red districts where a Republican incumbent isn’t running, CLF will yield to extremist candidates and their funders.
2. Donald Trump Just Keeps Losing
The man who hates to lose has made a habit of losing. He lost the presidency and the Senate. In 2021, Trump tried to oust Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, and failed. Across the country many of his loyalists — from Kari Lake in Arizona to Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania — flopped in the midterms. In December, he railed against the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, and Senate Republicans ignored him.
And then there is his no-mentum 2024 presidential campaign, a sad and pathetic affair that inspired Olivia Nuzzi’s profile comparing Trump to an aging, irrelevant film star.
Not surprisingly, Trump hated being compared to Norma Desmond, the character played by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” But it turns out that “Sunset Boulevard” is one of Trump’s favorite movies, which he watches obsessively. This week, like Norma Desmond, he announced that he was ready for yet another close-up.
And nobody cared.