Published 7th October 2023

Why Trump steers clear of the Washington sausage machine: Joe Hockey

This week’s political assassination of Speaker Kevin McCarthy has weakened the Republicans – and Trump knows it.

Joe Hockey | Australian Financial Review | October 7, 2023

Otto Von Bismarck, the 19th-century Prussian chancellor who unified Germany, once reportedly remarked that “laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made”.

This week in Washington we were given an insight into the blood and guts of the entire political abattoir. Kevin McCarthy was the first speaker of the US Congress to be sacked by his colleagues on the floor of the House since the role was created in 1789.

The Speaker in US politics is similar to a prime minister in a presidential system (think of France). They are also the leader of the opposition when there is a different party in the White House.

The Speaker controls which bills are put to a vote, leads House negotiation on the US budget, hands out lucrative Congressional committee roles and is second in line to be president (after the vice-president). In short, it’s a very powerful position.

McCarthy was ousted despite receiving the support of 95 per cent of his Republican Congressional colleagues. It’s extraordinary to be removed with that kind of support but the Republicans’ four-seat majority in the 435-seat chamber is so small that a disgruntled few had no problem staging an effective coup.

Matt Gaetz, 41, a fundamentally flawed Congressman from Florida, led the charge. McCarthy and Gaetz have quite a history. The Floridian maverick has fashioned himself as a firebrand defender of budget austerity. As part of his narrative, Gaetz railed against a budget negotiation that kept the US government open. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that he was a willing party to Donald Trump’s reckless budgets which locked in structural deficits as far as the eye can see.

Gaetz is right in his recent criticism of US government’s ballooning debt, and he was right to rail against the way the Congress has previously handled budgets. But his motivation for removing McCarthy is more likely about a looming Congressional ethics committee investigation into his personal behaviour, a potential run for governor of Florida, and his fundraising efforts (he sent out fundraising emails minutes after the vote), than it is about his deep and abiding concern for the US budget.

Each of the eight defectors had a grumble of sorts with McCarthy but those grievances are dwarfed by the impact of their actions.

The Republicans look like a mess, again. They have weakened their chance to hold the House majority in the November elections next year. They were already facing an uphill battle with boundary redraws led by Democratic state legislatures making a number of districts hard to hold.

In addition, a number of House Republicans hold districts where Joe Biden received more votes than Donald Trump. If Biden and Trump are candidates again, re-election chances for Republicans in those districts are challenging at best.

The Republicans are now more publicly divided than ever. Factions within the party disagree about additional aid for Ukraine, the impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden, how and where to rein in government spending, and how to handle social issues such as abortion.

Crucially last week, McCarthy was able to navigate the divide by getting last-minute support to delay a potential shutdown of the US government for 45 days while a longer-term solution to the budget crisis was found.

Like everything in Washington, self-interest ensured that there was little time to mourn the fallen. Within hours of McCarthy’s political funeral, his top lieutenant Steve Scalise and his conservative mediator Jim Jordan were on the phones lobbying colleagues for the vacancy. A vote is expected next Wednesday and it has real ramifications for Australia.

Steve Scalise has the incumbent advantage as McCarthy’s longtime deputy and is the most likely candidate so far to support ongoing financial support for Ukraine. But let’s not forget he is a Louisiana native and self-described conservative. He may also be hurt by a desire within the GOP for a clean leadership slate. There is a lot of personal goodwill for Scalise who has battled challenging health issues after surviving a horrific shooting at a Congressional baseball practice. He also now has blood cancer which is the subject of much discussion among his colleagues. Scalise is tough as teak.

Jim Jordan was a co-founder of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus and is a vocal defender of Donald Trump. He was one of the architects of the US government’s longest shutdown and won’t feel pressure to compromise to keep the US open for business. He will want to end or offset financial support for Ukraine. If funding stops, it will have huge implications for Europe and could shift the West’s reliance on the United States as defender in chief.

But as the dust settles in Washington, there may be more contenders to put up their hand. Others in the conversation include North Carolinian Patrick McHenry (a broadly likeable conservative) and Kevin Hern of Oklahoma (a softer conservative).

And where is Donald Trump on all this? Uncharacteristically he was slow to respond, putting out a bland statement on his social media platform that simply called on Republicans to stop fighting with each other.

Even though he is no student of history Donald Trump knows, just like Bismarck 150 years ago, that there is nothing people will want to see less than the political meat grinder in action in Washington.

This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review.

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