JUSTIN WEBB: Bloodletting has pushed Washington DC to the brink
JUSTIN WEBB: Unprecedented bloodletting has pushed Washington DC to the brink. And it could spell disaster for Ukraine – and the global economy
They have gone nuclear. They have taken America into a place it has never been before. Yes, it will feel to many like a limited explosion, a dumpster fire in the corridors of power, but the ramifications of what has happened this week in the House of Representatives may yet be felt around the free world.
Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House, has just been deposed by his own side, the Republicans. Never before has a ruling party in the House sacked its leader. Even worse, without any obvious replacement.
Under the constitution, the Speaker is the second in line to the presidency. He or she is a hugely powerful figure. And under America’s system of division of power, no president, however powerful and regal, can spend money for long on something the Speaker of the House refuses to fund.
And this is all happening just as government spending — all of which must be approved in the House — is poised to shut down in a month because lawmakers cannot agree on budgets and the future level of America’s soaring debt.
Already, debt levels in the U.S. and the House’s failure to agree on the ‘debt-ceiling’ are creating doubts in global financial markets and pushing up interest rates. The looming government spending shutdown also threatens both U.S. defence aid to Ukraine and the finance that should keep afloat the smooth government of the nation responsible for roughly a quarter of all the wealth created in the world.
Kevin McCarthy (pictured), the Speaker of the House, has just been deposed by his own side, the Republicans
Now, with the Speaker’s fall, it has just got a whole lot worse. If there is no Speaker, or no one willing and able to do the job, what on Earth happens to America’s ability to govern itself and to project power abroad?
When asked how this unprecedented situation might affect the perception of America overseas, former vice president Mike Pence considered the question for a full 13 seconds before responding, with some understatement: ‘Chaos is never America’s friend.’
To many of its citizens on Left and Right, the country feels closer to chaos right now than is remotely comfortable. McCarthy was deposed because several of his own side hate him personally and, with a Republican majority of only four, they had the power to end his tenure at any time they wanted.
Some Republicans want to cut off the funding for Ukraine which McCarthy supported; another is unhappy at an ethics investigation after being accused of sex trafficking; and still more are of the view that all spending needs to be reduced because the long-term pile of debt facing America is unsustainable.
That is a plausible standpoint — though, of course, their own president, Donald Trump, was among the most spendthrift politicians of all when in office.
So even the reasons for the toppling of the Speaker are confused. The chances of someone putting it all back together again are remote, to put it mildly.
But most Americans will see the mess in the House of Representatives as a sign of something far more widespread and worrying.
When even Trump — who still dominates the race for the Republican presidential nomination — is telling you to be disciplined, focused and calm, you know you have a problem.
Yet that is exactly the message Trump gave to his own party over this internal squabble — even though he seems to be becoming less disciplined himself.
He suggested recently that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — America’s top soldier —deserved to be executed because he had rung his Chinese counterpart during the Trump presidency to assure him that America was not about to attack. ‘An act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!’ Trump wrote on his social network.
Given the number of deranged people with guns in America, it felt to many like a deeply dangerous comment. As was his suggestion for how shoplifters might be treated under his next administration: ‘We will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply: if you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store.’
On the other side, things are not much better. Joe Biden (pictured) tells Americans that the coming election is about defending democracy
But what really depresses Americans, and will be noticed in Beijing and Moscow as much as the House of Representatives chaos, is the sense that Trump’s opponents have so little firepower.
The last debate between the also-rans for the Republican presidential nomination — which Trump did not bother to attend —was widely considered to be a mess in which they mostly talked over each other and argued about the cost of expensive office curtains installed with government money. Unsurprisingly, they failed to boost their single-figure poll ratings compared to Trump’s 55 per cent.
On the other side, things are not much better. Joe Biden tells Americans that the coming election is about defending democracy.
But large numbers of Americans see him as a poor choice to mount that defence. In an Associated Press poll, 77 per cent said Biden, 80, was too old to be effective for four more years. Not only do 89 per cent of Republicans say that, so do 69 per cent of Democrats.
On top of all this is the stench of alleged corruption that tarnishes both sides of the political aisle. Trump faces the destruction of his business empire as he stands accused of fraud and of telling lies about the worth of his properties to get better loan terms. Meanwhile, the business affairs of Biden’s one-time drug addict son Hunter Biden are also splashed across the front pages.
Hunter is facing trial for lying on an application for a gun licence and also for tax evasion and other unspecified charges. He accumulated millions of dollars when his father was vice president amid accusations — denied by the Bidens — that he was using the family name to peddle influence.
Elsewhere, a prominent Democratic party Senator, Bob Menendez, has been caught with wads of money, allegedly from bribes, in his home. Nearly half a million dollars in cash was found stuffed inside envelopes and the pockets of clothing hanging in his cupboards, while gold bars were also discovered.
Menendez insists he needed the money for emergencies and denies any wrongdoing, Maybe so, but the case simply adds to the sense of putrefaction that is causing many Americans to turn up their noses at all politicians at the moment. That is a very big problem. It is not, however, insoluble. After Watergate came Gerald Ford with his pipe and his calm assurances (and his pardon of Richard Nixon).
I lived in the U.S. for a decade and was always struck by how decent, amiable and thoughtful most Americans are in their daily dealings with each other.
My 23-year-old daughter Martha was there recently and called me in delight from an airport after she ordered fast food from a vendor who said: ‘Ma’am, it’s a pleasure to bring that to you and you have a great day.’ He meant it, too.
The trouble is that the gentility and warmth of so much American life is being incinerated by its politics. In Beijing and in Moscow they will notice this. In other capitals, where they still believe American power is, on balance, a good thing, there is now the risk that they see America as damaged.
What thoughtful politicians on Left and Right want to see is serious government.
Never mind the cost of curtains or the petty concerns of Washington politicians. They want a new dawn. And they want it soon.
- Justin Webb is the former BBC North America Editor.
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