Sixteen months ago, in this space, I urged Kevin McCarthy to begin pulling out of Donald Trump's orbit. The House minority leader from Bakersfield, I said, needed to disengage from the downward-draining whirlpool created by this utterly failed president before he’s sucked out to sea with Rudy Guiliani.
McCarthy was riding the wrong train.
Specifically, on Oct. 7, 2019, I wrote:
“It is well past time for McCarthy to cautiously extricate himself from the circle of support around this president, toward whom I believe history will not be kind. ... Lingering near this looming implosion will be further detrimental to McCarthy's career and, yes, his legacy. ... History judges harshly ...”
If it was well past time then, what time is it now — now that the implosion smolders before our eyes? I don’t know how much legacy McCarthy can salvage at this startling moment of reckoning in American politics and society, but I do know that history also tells stories of redemption — achievable if one allows oneself to reach for the rope.
But the rope floated right past McCarthy last week; he made no attempt to grasp it. Trump had fomented a stunning siege of the U.S. Capitol with false claims of widespread voter fraud, each allegation having been rejected, one after another, on various grounds in 60 courtrooms around the country. And McCarthy had abetted the fantasy, again.
As Politifact laid out Friday, media outlets including Fox News and The Wall Street Journal had reported that Trump or his supporters had seen their dubious and occasionally frivolous challenges routinely defeated. "Judges have denied or dismissed dozens of cases backed by Trump and his allies, who have pushed unsupported charges of widespread fraud in battleground states," Fox News reported Jan. 7.
The judges in those cases included at least eight Trump appointees. One, Brett H. Ludwig, of the U.S. District Court in Wisconsin, called the Trump campaign’s request to have the GOP-dominated Wisconsin legislature pick new presidential electors “bizarre.” “... (The) plaintiff ‘asks that the Rule of Law be followed,’” Ludwig wrote. “It has been.”
Give McCarthy this: Sequestered in a safe room somewhere in the U.S. Capitol while marauding bands of Trump supporters engaged, as ordered, in “trial by combat” with overmatched police, McCarthy, by one account, got into a screaming match with Trump, imploring the president to call off his dogs. According to the report, picked up by CNN and MSNBC, McCarthy demanded that Trump release a statement denouncing the mob. Trump initially refused — then, as we all saw, relented. Momentarily.
Then, with this fresh evidence that the chief executive was trying to lay the foundation for some sort of a coup, McCarthy returned to the hallowed, reclaimed chambers of the House of Representatives and cast extraconstitutional votes to delay the ceremonial but necessary ratification of a new, duly elected president, just as Trump had surely hoped he would.
And then, having driven this wedge further into a divided country with his Wednesday night support of those Electoral College challenges, amid a literal Trump riot, McCarthy had the audacity to call for healing and cooperation.
“The task ahead for the next Congress and incoming Biden Administration couldn’t be more momentous,” McCarthy said in a statement. “But to deliver a better America for all, partisans of all stripes first must unite as Americans ...”
Nice words. True words. But hollow words given that, days after the election, McCarthy had told Fox News, “President Trump won this election ... We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes." Two weeks later he told Jonathan Martin of The New York Times that Biden’s chances of uniting the country were slim. “If you have 70 percent of Republicans (based on a Monmouth University poll) who thought he cheated, he's still going to have a hard time.”
Those Republicans thought the Democrats cheated because people like McCarthy, without evidence, told them so. Because the president, without evidence, claimed fraud literally months before the first ballot was even cast. Because they both stoked the flames of dissent even as 60 courts, including a U.S. Supreme Court fortified with three Trump appointees, the most of any one-term president in history, denied them at almost every turn.
But now, America, unite.
McCarthy’s decision to cast his lot Wednesday night with the Ted Cruzes and Josh Hawleys of the world — two U.S. senators now openly derided and mocked in their home states and beyond for their groundless objections to Biden’s ratification — has not exactly been a PR bonanza.
The Lincoln Project, a PAC formed by prominent Republicans and now-former Republicans, released a 30-second video Friday calling McCarthy the “pathetic enabler” of a “pathological liar and seditious traitor” and calling upon his staff — allegedly mired in disarray — to quit en masse. “Pack up your desk and leave that loser behind," the video concludes. (McCarthy’s office denies any sort of internal chaos currently troubles his staff.)
The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board laid much of the blame for Wednesday’s riots at McCarthy’s feet, calling him “a soulless anti-democracy conspirator” who had placed political ambitions over country.
“The Republican Party is clearly losing its ability to win by the rules,” The Bee wrote.
Washington Post columnist Max Boot, an avowed conservative, called for the resignations of both McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The GOP will find it hard to pivot toward the sane center, given how much of its base has bought into the vile lies spread by Trump and his propagandists. ...
“It is unlikely to happen under the current congressional leadership, which has been a profile in cowardice,” Boot wrote. “… McConnell and McCarthy have brought dishonor and defeat on the Republican Party. Both men need to go if there is to be any hope of redemption for the GOP.”
McConnell will be out as Senate majority leader thanks to Democrats’ two-seat sweep in the Georgia runoffs last week, but McCarthy returns to his caucus chairmanship in the House bolstered by significant gains in November.
He is stronger in terms of numbers but weaker in terms of principled leadership.
History can be a harsh biographer. Course correction is still possible, but one day this train will run out of track.