Kevin McCarthy’s ejection from his seat as speaker of the US House of Representatives — an ignominy that hadn’t been attempted in more than a century — is a national embarrassment that deepens the Republican Party’s descent into dysfunction and extremism. But the fact is: The blame rests not just with the eight Republicans who voted to oust him, but also with both party’s leaders — McCarthy and Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries — for failing to reach across the aisle to save the country from this mess.
Over the past several election cycles, I have strongly supported Democratic efforts to win the House, largely to save the country from the dysfunction and craziness of a party that has fallen captive to its extreme right wing. I disagree with McCarthy on virtually every issue, but in some critical moments this year, he showed that he was willing to stand up to his party’s right-wing extremists and take the heat.
Jeffries should’ve been willing to take the same risk, by rising above partisanship to save McCarthy’s job — if not for the good of the country, then for the good of the Democratic Party.
What’s the lesson from McCarthy’s political demise?
Jeffries’s decision to let McCarthy hang himself may have allowed Democrats to feel good in the moment, but Democrats now face the prospect of a speaker who will likely be to McCarthy’s right, and who will likely draw from his political demise the worst possible lesson: that the extremists must be heeded.
For the eight Republicans who ousted McCarthy, his great crime was cooperating with Democrats to keep the government open and running, and to keep the government from defaulting on US debt. In other words, he governed.
Democrats could have shown voters that at least one party in Washington is serious about finding common ground.
Never mind that the agreement McCarthy reached in May to avoid breaching the debt ceiling reduced federal deficits by about $1.5 trillion over a decade and advanced several other conservative policy goals. And never mind that his refusal to shut down the government over the weekend meant that our men and women in uniform would continue to get paid for protecting our country and defending our freedoms around the world.
The right-wing extremists in Congress would rather torpedo the government than run it. And in voting out McCarthy, Jeffries and House Democrats are helping them do it.
McCarthy’s failure to reach out to Democrats was inexcusable, of course. But so too was Jeffries’ failure to extend an olive branch. Not only has it empowered the Republicans’ extreme right wing, but it also squandered an opportunity for Democrats to increase their influence.
Jeffries had a chance to use the crisis to push for a more bipartisan governing model in the House, one that would have given Democrats more involvement in crafting legislation and conducting oversight. It could have been a transformative moment for Congress and the country. But if any informal Democratic overture occurred, it was too little, too late.
It’s true that McCarthy gave no indication he would have had the good sense to accept a serious peace offering by Jeffries. But even if he had rejected it, Democrats could have shown voters that at least one party in Washington is serious about finding common ground. Their failure to make a peace offering falls heaviest on the party’s moderates, who speak of bipartisanship but, when push comes to shove, don’t practise it.
Now, with the House paralysed, not only is Congress failing to do the people’s business, but aid to Ukraine has been indefinitely paused, helping the war and costing people their lives.
“There has to be an adult in the room,” McCarthy said over the weekend, after keeping the government from shutting down with the help of Democrats. He was right. Sadly, in the end, neither he nor Jeffries could do the adult thing, by reaching across the aisle to prevent Congress from sinking even deeper into dysfunction.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions, and chair of the Defence Innovation Board.