In a post yesterday, I asked how long before Trump swallows McCarthy. There was actually no swallowing in the Aesopic fable I had in mind-- just stinging and drowning. A slightly updated rendition of the original Greek for those who have forgotten the tale of the crocodile and the scorpion:
Once upon a time, a Scorpion wanted to cross the river. We all know Scorpions cannot swim, and will drown in water. A lazy Crocodile was surfing along the river bank. The Scorpion called to the Crocodile, "Hey, Crokie, give me a lift across the river!" "No way, Jose!" replied the wise Crocodile! "Why?" asked the Scorpion. "Well, everybody knows, Scorpions sting people, and it is poisonous!" shot back the Crocodile! "Oh, no! No!" said the Scorpion, who was anxious to cross the river. "Everybody knows that Scorpions are afraid of water, and we cannot swim and we will drown!" replied the Scorpion, "Why would I do such a stupid thing!". The Crocodile thought for a while, and realized it was true! "He will die, if he stings me!" He thought! So he asked the Scorpion to hop on his back. Half-way across the river, the Crocodile felt the deadly painful sting from the Scorpion. His last words, "Hey, why did you do that?" "Sorry, I just couldn't help it, I am a Scorpion!" replied the Scorpion as he drowns in the water.
I asked Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib if he had that fable in mind when he wrote his own piece about McCarthy today, As With the Tea Party, Republican Leaders Try to Control a Rebel Army, noting that "Now, as before, House leaders are trying to leverage an energized political force to help in midterm elections; this time it’s Donald Trump’s followers." He hasn't responded yet, but maybe he was thinking about how Franz von Papen, Alfred Hugenberg and other Weimar conservatives, financiers and industrialists thought they could keep a tight leash on Hitler when they had a wisely wary Paul Hindenburg appoint him chancellor in 1932. That worked out pretty badly for everyone concerned.
Seib wrote today that "When the tea party movement emerged in 2009, Republican leaders assumed they could humor its followers and capture their intensity, while keeping them under control. They were wrong. Instead, the party’s leaders were consumed by the movement they tried to corral, and by the grass-roots anger they thought they could use to their advantage."
Tea party energy helped propel Republicans into a House majority and make John Boehner the speaker of the House-- yet he was never able to contain the movement he was riding and eventually resigned in frustration.
The task of riding herd over the tea party caucus fell to three younger House leaders, who fashioned themselves as the “Young Guns”: Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy. Ryan became Speaker but he, too, eventually left Congress in frustration. Cantor was beaten in a Republican primary by a tea party upstart.
That left McCarthy, who today is the top House Republican. And he is, to some extent, struggling to manage an angry army of insurrectionists within his own party, this time in the form of Trump and his followers.
Now, as before, McCarthy is trying to bend to this force in hopes he can use its energy in next year’s midterm elections. First he paid homage to Trump personally by visiting him at his new headquarters in Mar-a-Lago, and then by backing away from criticism of Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and of the role he played in sparking the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Now, famously, McCarthy this week appears set on engineering the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney from a House leadership position because she continues to challenge the former president over his unsubstantiated 2020 election claims and to point a finger of blame at him over his role in the Capitol insurrection.
Far more than is commonly realized, this is an attempt not to expand Trump’s role in the party but to control it. Many Republicans think Cheney only keeps the spotlight on Trump by continuing to publicly call him out over the 2020 election, thereby making it harder to move past that chapter. They think she is the one enabling the former president and his love for attention.
Cheney has a quite different view, of course. She has made it clear that refusal to accept the outcome of a valid national election will become a defining characteristic of the Republican party if allowed to stand, and that a party must confront such an argument rather than simply move past it.
McCarthy and other House Republican leaders think they are pursuing a more forward-looking goal, which is to take back control of the House in next year’s midterm elections. Doing so, they believe, will require the energy and support of Trump and his considerable base of supporters.
To secure that energy and support, McCarthy is prepared to jettison Cheney and her conservative voting record in favor of Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a onetime Trump critic who actually voted against his administration’s signature policy achievement, the 2017 tax-cut package, and criticized his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.
But Stefanik now is a Trump loyalist and has his backing, which has become a more important credential for Trump followers than a conservative voting record.
The question facing McCarthy and other party leaders is whether they are again mistaken in assuming they can channel the energy and anger of a grass-roots movement without being overtaken by it.
Glenn Youngkin, a former CEO of the predatory Carlyle Group, used $5 million of his own to buy the Republican Party gubernatorial nomination. (After 6 rounds of ranked choice counting, Youngkin beat runner-up Pete Snyder 6,868-- 54.71%-- to 5,686-- 45.29%.) He ran as a somewhat less insane Trumpist than state senator Amanda Chase, an actual 1/6 insurrectionist, who came in 3rd, behind Youngkin and Snyder, the party establishment guy. It's worth noting, though, that neither Youngkin nor Snyder-- not to mention the insurrectionist crackpot-- acknowledges that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. This morning, Trump endorsed Youngkin for the general.
Today, Chuck Todd's crew wrote that "Youngkin will be a fascinating test case ahead of next year’s midterm elections: Can a wealthy GOP outsider-- who has embraced Trump, campaigned on election integrity and declined to say that Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was legitimate-- win in blue Virginia, especially in its suburbs? Or now that Trump is out of the White House and off of Twitter, are Democratic and suburban voters less fired up in Virginia than they were four years ago?"