The two Macs vie for the Republican party

The late-career mellowing of Mitch McConnell can be overstated. The man who leads the Republican minority in the US Senate remains a tenacious and unsentimental partisan. His journey away from Trumpism has been tardy and qualified.

Last week, however, he helped to stave off one of the nation’s all-too-frequent public-debt crises. Thanks to his collaborative work, the Democrats can now raise the debt ceiling with a bare majority vote in the chamber. For his efforts, McConnell has endured months of criticism as a sellout by colleagues in the House of Representatives. One such, Matt Gaetz, taking his cue from Donald Trump, questioned his “backbone”.

As that language suggests, the House has become the unofficial headquarters of Trumpism. The Senate, due to its smaller size and longer terms, is less permeable to upstart politicians. Trump himself has a fraction of the profile he enjoyed before the social-media giants deplatformed him. As for the Supreme Court, it is one-third Trump-appointed, but naturally constrained in what it can say or do.

That leaves the lower house as a populist free-for-all. In recent months, one Republican there has called a Muslim Democrat “blackhearted” and joked about her potential as a suicide bomber. Another, perhaps unaware that cancer is non-transmissible, wonders why the disease does not lead to school closures while the coronavirus pandemic does. Yet a third has posed with his gun-toting family for a photograph just days after a lethal school shooting. As with Gaetz, it is tempting to dismiss these as low-level members of the Washington firmament. But if the Republicans win back the House next year, these are the people who will set the legislative agenda and populate important committees.

And it is not as if the House Republican leadership makes for a much more dignified spectacle. Presiding over the farce is Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, who paid a supportive call on Trump in Florida after the Capitol siege of last January. Adam Kinzinger, a Trump critic who is leaving the House, cites McCarthy as a pivotal force in keeping the GOP tethered to the twice-impeached demagogue. He has certainly not aided what tentative work McConnell has done to take the party in a new direction.

This tension between the two Macs is more than Washington melodrama. It captures the choice facing the party. McConnell holds out the promise of (relative) pragmatism. A future set by McCarthy could look much like the past five years. Common to both is that neither necessarily acts out of deep conviction. McConnell, the politician’s politician, may just calculate that Trumpism commands a large minority of the nation, but not a durable majority. As for McCarthy, he made his name as one of the party’s far-from-extreme Young Guns, along with former House speaker Paul Ryan. Trumpism is something he has adopted over time.

Their motives aside, anyone concerned about America’s civic health should hope that McConnellism prevails in the party. He soon turns 80, and that is not the only fact that makes his project to keep the party under some control so daunting. Since the eruption of Newt Gingrich and his 1994 “revolution”, the House has driven the radicalisation of the Republican party. Entrants from the Tea Party continued the trend in 2010. There is even boisterous talk of Trump returning as Speaker of the House. Even if he recedes from frontline politics, it is grim enough that his approach to politics now has independent momentum and a base in the heart of Washington.

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