In the classic film “Citizen Kane,” there is a scene in which Charles Foster Kane refuses to abandon his run for governor after learning that details of his extramarital affair will be made public. Kane growls that no one was going to “rob him of the love of the people of this state.” His antagonist, political boss Jim Gettys, who had exposed the affair, is stunned since the scandal means certain defeat for Kane. (This was 1941 after all.) Gettys says to Kane, “With anyone else, I’d say it would be a lesson to you. But you’re gonna need more than one lesson ... and you’re gonna get more than one lesson.”
That brings to mind today’s Republican Party. Getting devastated in the midterms should have been a lesson, but whether the GOP will need more than one is open to question. Indications are they will. Already, the Freedom Caucus, named for its desire to deny freedom to anyone but themselves, is putting pressure on presumptive House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to engage in precisely the same behavior that cost the party a majority in the Senate, a commanding majority in House, and a stunning number of state and local offices across the nation. McCarthy, who wanted to be speaker badly enough to get the lead in Faust, will almost certainly give in.
Then there is Donald Trump. In his new run for the presidency, in which he, like Kane, assumes the love of the people, Trump seems motivated more by his desperation to avoid jail time than to again shoulder the responsibility of running the country. (Of course, for him that was only a part-time job the first time.) One thing certain is that he will use his candidacy to settle scores, both real and imagined. Princess Diana may have had her “revenge dress,” but Trump will do her one better with the revenge campaign.
It is not as if most Republican leaders and many party operatives not on the extreme right don’t know better — Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence and a host of others were willing to state publicly they were none too pleased that Trump has refused to move offstage even though the play has ended. Even Rupert Murdoch, the ultimate opportunist, seems to have instructed his minions at Fox News and the New York Post to cut Trump loose.
But that does not mean they are embracing what tens of millions of voters showed that they wanted — a functioning democracy in which the government is used to solve problems rather than rule by personal ambition or pandering to the extremes. The most surprising thing about Democrats’ avoiding the midterm graveyard is that they did so in the face of what seemed to be the extreme unpopularity of President Biden and the belief by almost three-quarters of Americans that the economy was in bad shape. What Biden and the Democrats did have in their favor was that they seemed to be making an effort to actually govern instead of wallowing in transparently false conspiracy theories or insisting that obvious lies were true. Democrats pounded on the message that democracy itself was on the ballot and voters believed them.
And so, Speaker McCarthy has entered “be careful what you wish for” territory. His choice seems to be whether to kowtow to the Freedom Caucus — and risk further alienating mainstream voters — or to try to persuade House Republicans to pretend they are an actual political party, with policies and ideas that will make people’s lives better.
The latter will be no easy task. As minority leader, he could hide behind an inability to control the House’s agenda and try to gain voters’ loyalty merely by opposing Democrats’ “radical socialist agenda.” But that will no longer be sufficient. Republicans in the House will now be setting the agenda and if they confine themselves to investigating the arch-criminal Hunter Biden or trying to impeach his father for the high crime of ... they’ll think of something ... McCarthy risks having a rather abbreviated term as speaker.
But McCarthy and his fellow Republicans have a policy problem as well. Beyond banning abortion and protecting military-style weapon ownership, they don’t seem to have any. This is a party that has spent so long merely attacking their opponents that, now that they are in power, they seem devoid of the means to remain there.
Then, of course, the question circles back to Trump. Since he initially announced for president in 2015, Republicans have been fractured. At first, it seemed of little consequence that many rural conservatives and others that Hillary Clinton termed “a basket of deplorables” flocked to Trump’s candidacy, because he seemed certain to be brushed away like a fly. But in an upset that astounded even Trump himself, he won the election. (A friend sent me a photo taken in the employees’ lounge at Fox News on election night 2016, wherein the faces of the staff appeared as stunned and horrified as if aliens had landed.)
For the ensuing six years, the party tried desperately to hold together an increasingly fragile coalition. But while at first it seemed that the party could not win without Trump and his loyalists, it now seems equally apparent that they cannot win with them.
The only solution is for McCarthy to defy the fringes of his party and adopt a reasonable conservative agenda. There are certainly issues on which he can do so, including government spending, excessive regulation and a bloated bureaucracy. The reason he likely will not is that he will view it as a risk to his speakership, the loss of which he dreads.
And so, McCarthy and his fellow Republican House members are likely to continue to press forward with an agenda that three elections have told them is fatally flawed. A liberal pundit said recently that Donald Trump is the best thing to happen to the Democratic Party since FDR. Kevin McCarthy, another man who needs more than one lesson, will soon be standing at his side.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Lawrence Goldstone’s most recent book is "On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights."
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