GOP in utter shambles, and Democrats are loving it: But it's a bad look for America

Actual bipartisanship was on display in Kentucky — not that anyone noticed amid the toddler tantrum on Capitol Hill

By Brian Karem


Published January 5, 2023 9:22AM (EST)

President Joe Biden appears on stage with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, former Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell on Jan. 4, 2023, in Covington, Kentucky. (Michael Swensen/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden appears on stage with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, former Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell on Jan. 4, 2023, in Covington, Kentucky. (Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

The U.S. House of Representatives — even to those in it — often seems like a circus.

As Kevin McCarthy's bid to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives failed for a fourth time Wednesday afternoon, President Biden and Sen. Mitch McConnell appeared together near a bridge over the Ohio River in northern Kentucky to speak about the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year.

Back on Capitol Hill, McCarthy would taste defeat two more times before the House adjourned until Thursday afternoon — after debating that for nearly a half an hour on Wednesday night.

Having fun yet in the New Year?

Live! For the first time on television and the first time since 1923! The vote to name the Speaker of the House goes longer than one ballot. It's the dramatic story of factions on edge. On the right we have the far right and the twisted 20 crazies. Join us! C-SPAN's newest hit show.  It's "Speaker of the House" broadcast live, in living color and for free.

See the thrills. Listen to the chills:

"It's hurting our party!"

"Coalition government!"

"It's all or nothing!"

"Washington is broken!"

"Democracy is messy!"

"We respect our opponents, but hate the Democrats!"

Where's the popcorn? It's the best staged circus in history with clowns, brave and ignorant fools; a high wire, a trampoline and trapeze act, human oddities and despicable acts usually only seen in all the worst parts of the Christian Bible, or a cheap adult bookstore. 

It's American politics at its finest. The Republicans are in shambles and the Democrats are loving it, watching the GOP eat its own for once. Usually it's the Democrats who engage in a public cannibal feast, so you can imagine the joy they have felt watching two days of the Republicans turn carnivorous.

It's always tough to take Jim Jordan seriously, and his apparent coup attempt against McCarthy had all the appeal of a middle-school production of "Macbeth."

Never has the election of a House speaker been so electric. For once it's more exciting than watching bingo. But it comes with a price — all politics does. Rep. Jim Jordan got a shot at the center stage and feigned loyalty to Kevin McCarthy (which is suspicious on the face of it) while enjoying Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert and others puckering up and presenting their eager lips to his political posterior. 

It's hard to take Jordan seriously even when he swears with all of his heart that he's for real. As he made his own impassioned plea in nominating Kevin McCarthy, a reporter turned to me and said, "Is he nominating McCarthy or himself?" Jordan's apparent coup attempt against Kevin McCarthy's leadership had all the appeal of a badly performed middle-school production of "Macbeth" and was viewed by the GOP as a joke — except for the 20 people in the House apparently crazier than Jordan.

When that failed, the former wrestler and current Ohio congressman proved he was a deal maker on a sinking ship. Jordan is the guy who'd sell you a stateroom on the Titanic, real cheap — after the iceberg hit. His real desire, we're all told, is to head up the Judiciary Committee and spend the next two years investigating Hunter Biden's laptop. After that, he wouldn't mind being speaker. Be careful what you wish for, Jimbo. 

But he'd had enough by the end of Tuesday night, and by the time Wednesday rolled around Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida found himself the first African-American man nominated by the Republicans for the speaker's role. Of course, he was nominated by the 20 most extreme members of the GOP, who want to sabotage the democratic process by introducing rules that will enable their minority wing to effectively exercise control over the entire House. Only the Republicans can sound racist even as they nominate a Black man for the top job. 

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McCarthy, no slouch at sleaze, remained firm — as did his supporters. After six ballots, no one budged, blinked or changed their mind. In fact after adjourning Wednesday afternoon in order to supposedly work out a deal, the House reconvened at 8 p.m. The only noticeable difference was the ruddy smiles on some faces that indicated they'd spent the last few hours imbibing. Thirty minutes later, after much haggling, the House finally adjourned for the night.

The biggest smiles were on the faces of Democrats — including that of Joe Biden, who shook his head at his public appearance with McConnell and then again later when he arrived at the White House as he condemned the Republicans' inability to choose a leader: "Having a Congress that can't function is just embarrassing. We're the greatest nation in the world. How can that be?" 

The answer to that question is simple, but few want to face it. Certainly not the Republicans, who declared how great we are even as they showed us their inability to govern. We all know politicians are itinerant whores, but this first week of Republican control of the House looks like a mashup between the television shows "Dallas" and "Hee Haw." (Look it up. I haven't got time to explain.)

Everyone claimed they wouldn't blink and their opponent would, which set up the head-on collision on the House floor. "A House Divided," the headlines screamed. No kidding. The House is divided between Democrats and Republicans, and the Republicans are divided among themselves.  The dazed and stunned GOP, a far cry from the boogeymen (mostly old white men) they want to be, looked like pre-schoolers taking a dump on the living floor while the extended family visits for the holidays. Of course, some people enjoy that type of thing, and apparently many are members of Congress.

The far right was exposed, but they never cared about that. You can't embarrass a group of individuals who are unaware of their own ignorance. Worse yet, they have no shame. They care only about unfettered power. 

The only issues on their mind are fentanyl and immigration, both of which they either purposely twist or completely misunderstand. Chances are it's both.

During the course of the last two days a flurry of rumors passed through the House. Walking the halls of House offices is often like visiting a dentist's office in a whorehouse. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the dentist took the day off. So we heard that McCarthy was crossing over to talk to Democrats, hoping to get them not to show up for the vote so he could win. Conversely, GOP members were going to get fed up and throw their lot in with Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, who got 212 votes (six short of the needed threshold of 218) in all six rounds of voting. 

We heard that McCarthy hoped to get Democrats not to show up for the vote so he could win it — or that GOP members would get fed up and throw in their lot with Hakeem Jeffries. None of it was true.

Depending on which rumor-monger was spreading the story, it was either members of the twisted 20 holdouts or six members of the Republican mainstream who would switch over. Some spread the rumor that Republicans would either vote "present" or not show up at all, thus giving Jeffries the speakership by default. None of it was true. Only one Republican, Victoria Spartz of Indiana, voted "present." McCarthy's supporters never budged. The twisted 20 only changed their public face and the Democrats never twitched. "This is their problem," several Democratic congressmen told me. 

That's just fine with Matt Gaetz, who would be the guy who steered the GOP Titanic into the iceberg. Breaking with McCarthy, Gaetz — the poster boy for criminal crazy — loudly lobbied and promoted first Jordan and then Donalds. 

"I hope they get their act together," Biden said more than once on Wednesday. Maybe he does, but he's clearly enjoying the spectacle. "The rest of the world is looking," he admonished. "It's a little embarrassing it's taking so long, and the way they are dealing with another."

The extremists in the GOP — a party of extremists — keep saying this is about rules changes. They neglect to mention that they want to change the rules so a minority can rule the majority. It's their last chance at relevance. In two years most of them won't be around.

But there are several things that this historic haggling has clearly brought into focus, and the most important is how out of touch the Republicans are with everyday Americans. While screaming about their relevance, they show how irrelevant they've become. Are the Democrats just as bad? Maybe, but at least they've kept their mouths shut in the last few days while the GOP descended into mind-numbing chaos and put their ugly political posteriors on clear view.

Rep. Kat Cammack nominated McCarthy for the final vote on Wednesday,  saying  she understood why people didn't want him as speaker while also praising him for standing up to critics — which he famously has never done. Not to be outdone, Rep. Lauren Boebert nominated Donalds by imitating a coyote baying at the moon while demanding McCarthy give up. Should McCarthy eventually prevail, Boebert will have a tough time finding a committee assignment. Meanwhile Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose childish insults of McCarthy in the past have been more embarrassing for her than him, was seen breaking with her fellow crazies while standing on a leash behind McCarthy. She's betting McCarthy gives her a plum committee assignment if he gets the job.

Then there's McCarthy himself. The insipid, spineless man who once delivered a speech entitled "How the GOP can solve problems in government" has been unable to solve the simplest of matters — getting 218 votes. 

It doesn't portend well for government in the next two years. But one thing said by all the different people who nominated McCarthy for speaker does ring true: This is a transparent display of our government in action — and there's no doubt that people on both sides of the aisle don't like what they see. The House circus showed off a variety of freaks, but as a governing body it is less effective than a grade school PTA.

That Cheshire-cat grin on most Democrats' faces as they watch the GOP crumble should be put aside. The challenge  facing the country is acute and Republican members of Congress have shown themselves to be feckless fools with the mental acumen of toddlers, the demeanor of preschoolers, the confidence of a schoolyard bully and the ability of a large rock in a stream.

We must do better. Oddly enough, we saw better Wednesday.

Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell are the bitterest of political rivals. They disagree on many issues. They have had harsh words for each other. There they were speaking together Wednesday in the red state of Kentucky. Shaking hands. Riding in a car together. Discussing issues, sharing pleasantries and promoting the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden spearheaded last year. Blink and you'll miss the bipartisanship in our government. But for those who want some hope, there it was. It got very little attention as the circus set itself ablaze on Capitol Hill. 

There, it was all about anger and vitriol. Late on Wednesday the blood feud in the House GOP continued, with reports that a McCarthy-aligned super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has agreed to stop picking candidates in primaries in safe Republican seats.

McCarthy will do anything to be speaker. It will be interesting to see what he'll do with the job. Don't expect much — the bloodletting has left the GOP anemic and weakened. For how long, no one can say. But it's left an indelible impression on the voting public.

The Republican Party is out of touch and its hypocrisy can be summed up by Rep. Warren Davidson. He spoke out against dehumanizing the opposition as he nominated McCarthy in the fifth round,  then attacked the Democrats in the next sentence. What a start to the new year.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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