Wicked game: Kevin McCarthy's debt-ceiling "crisis" is political theater at its worst

At least Mitch McConnell admits the obvious: There will be no default, and everyone knows it. So WTF is going on?

By Brian Karem


Published May 18, 2023 9:03AM (EDT)

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office of the White House on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Oval Office of the White House on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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

What the hell are we playing?

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and  Chuck Schumer and Vice President Kamala Harris all joined President Biden at the White House Tuesday to discuss the looming problem of the debt ceiling.

Sometime in the next two weeks the U.S. could default on its debt, supposedly rendering the nation in the eyes of the world — and particularly its adversaries — an unsafe trading partner, a pariah in the world community, a leper with spots, a nation in decline. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, rivers and seas boiling, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, there will be plagues and mass hysteria ... real Peter Venkman end-of-the-world stuff.

Prior to the meeting, Biden dismissed those apocalyptic concerns and told the world that defaulting on the national debt "is simply not an option," adding that "policy differences between the parties" were not an excuse for a drastic fiscal meltdown.

As he met with the vice president and congressional leaders of both parties in the Oval Office, Biden smiled, smirked and encouraged pool photographers to take pictures. "Hello, folks. Get a good picture of all of us. We're having a wonderful time. Everything is going well," he laughed. His smirk continued as he dismissed an inane question from a pool reporter about the nonexistent "crisis" on the border after the end of Title 42. "Yeah, right," he seemed to say.

As the president spoke, Schumer, Harris and McCarthy looked as if they were emerging from a Thorazine-induced haze. They were sluggish and quiet. Only Biden looked like he was having any fun.

As recently as Monday, McCarthy accused Biden of actually wanting a default, thereby pushing the nation into the abyss. Actually, it was only Donald Trump, in his recent CNN town hall, who publicly endorsed such a juvenile gesture. We might just have to "do a default," Trump exclaimed. That angered many, but should have surprised no one. Trump has a reputation for not paying his bills anyway. 

Maybe Kevin McCarthy was just dazed from the dizzying effects of trying to manage the crazies in his own party while cutting a deal with the White House. Maybe he just likes playing the blame game. Maybe he's an idiot.

We might have to "do a default," suggested Donald Trump in his CNN town hall. That should have surprised no one: He has a reputation for not paying his bills.

After laughing with and at the White House reporters, Biden dismissed them while the shrill voice of a junior wrangler with delusions of grandeur herded the press out the door. "I don't have any comment to make," Biden said, in direct contrast to the comments he had just made. "We're just getting started and will be available at the sticks when this is over."

McCarthy, McConnell and Schumer showed up outside the West Wing afterward, with McCarthy claiming that the government had 15 days to avoid disaster, "curve" spending and "grow the economy." Yes, we all know he probably meant to say "curb" spending, but McCarthy — bless his heart! — has never been accused of being overly sentient. He repeated the gaffe at least once more. Some of us laughed.

He never once mentioned that it was the Republican majority in Congress that put the country on the brink of default. He blamed Democrats but neglected to mention that the tax breaks Republicans gave to the richest Americans are a major part of the problem. Maybe he thought no one would figure that out. Then again, maybe he doesn't understand it himself.

Someone who actually does understand, along with Biden, is Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. He walked up to the reporters gathered at the sticks outside the West Wing and made quick work of the controversy. "We're not going to default. We know it. They know it," he said.

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OK then. So what the hell are we doing? 

That one's easy. Our political leaders are scaring the hell out of the country for two weeks while wrangling over budget cuts that could have been avoided if Congress had acted responsibly in the first place. For the next two weeks the White House and Congress will do this dance, with each side hoping not to give up too much before they cut a last-minute deal to keep the store open. They've told us that much.

McConnell and Biden are veteran dealmakers, while McCarthy is there to mouth the talking points of the fanatics. He's claimed he wants to "make a deal" for two months and is now happy that the White House has appointed underlings to handle the debt negotiations. McConnell simply said he'll back whatever deal is made, neglecting to mention that he'll probably have to broker the deal that will save McCarthy's rancid political hide.

All this game-playing either goes over the head of most members of the press or we're just playing along ourselves. I only say that because of the recent revelation that a member of the White House press corps recently supplied questions to the president ahead of a press conference, thereby turning the event into a scripted reality show. Maybe that's what we're all seeing right now — a political spectacle that mocks reality.

We were at it again on Wednesday morning, with reporters asking meaningless questions about "red lines" in the negotiations. As often as the Republicans and Democrats tell us they won't negotiate through the press, that doesn't keep us from trying to get them to do exactly that. No one asked the obvious question: If both the president and the Senate minority leader say that defaulting on our debt is not an option, then what game are they playing? We keep hearing how failure to reach an accord will be disastrous, while both sides say, out the other sides of their mouths, that such a failure simply won't occur. So the induced fear of economic collapse is a diversion. But to what end?

Our political leaders are scaring the hell out of the country for weeks while wrangling over budget cuts that could have been avoided if Congress had acted responsibly in the first place.

Meanwhile, Biden is headed to Japan for the G7 annual summit. He's gotten criticism for leaving the U.S. while negotiating the debt ceiling crisis, but National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday that the president can walk, talk and chew bubble gum at the same time. So he's apparently capable of handling both the G7 summit and looming global threats from Russia and China, while simultaneously working the debt ceiling talks from the other side of the world. Then again, Biden is also canceling part of his trip — to Australia and Papua New Guinea — to come home and deal with the debt. So which is it? He can or can't handle both simultaneously? It's just another sleight of hand and twist of fate.

According to several members of the president's staff, along with foreign reporters, representatives of the G7 nations and a few stray members of the press corps and general public who are still capable of rational thought, our partners and allies have "expressed no concerns" about the U.S. paying its debt, "but they all certainly realize the importance of the issue to our credibility and leadership," as I was told on background. If our allies aren't expressing any concern, then why are we? Again, it's an eminence front. It's a put-on.

It's as if we were watching an underwater ballet performed by circus monkeys on acid. After four years of the abnormalities of the Trump administration we have returned to the usual game playing in D.C. It's almost as if we can't handle the mundane aspects of negotiating with a common goal in mind. Of course we won't default. Both sides agree on that. Wait — both sides agree? How is that possible? The fun for them is in arguing the fine details — not the big picture. That's quite a change from the Trump years. It almost seems ... normal?

As for the press, after four years of being hounded, threatened and subjected to an acrimonious bully with no understanding of reality or established political protocol, we've all taken a dive for the appearance of normalcy generated from the White House and exemplified by these crisis negotiations with Congress — over what both Biden and  McConnell insist is no crisis at all.

Got it. 

But this fantasy is not reality. On Tuesday,  Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, reported that two of his staffers were sent to the hospital after someone came into his district office, apparently looking for him, and attacked them with a baseball bat. Politics in this country is now a contact sport. That is reality. 

Donald Trump — a name which will live in infamy or, better still, not at all — continues to push division, screaming that he's been framed, railroaded and treated like a pariah because he's our savior. He continues to foment violence and anger while his cult acolytes are all too happy to dish it out in his name.

Election results Tuesday gave us more signs that Trump's influence is waning. Republicans lost high-profile races in Jacksonville and Colorado Springs. "It's a hopeful sign that the political tide is turning against MAGA extremism," tweeted Democratic operative Jon Cooper. 

But in Kentucky, while Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear easily won renomination, the Republican he'll face is Daniel Cameron — endorsed and supported by none other than Donald Trump.

Cameron offered a "big thank you" to Trump at his election-night party and capped it with a claim that sent chills down the spines of voters, as well as a loud round of guffaws. "Let me just say, the Trump culture of winning is alive and well in Kentucky," Cameron said — without a hint of irony in his voice.

We can only hope Donald Trump's "culture of winning" does continue, not just in Kentucky but all over the country, where people are waking up to the reality that Trump's winning amounts to a loss for all of us. 

When that finally happens,  the question, "What are we playing?" will again be one we can ask without fear that our country is unraveling before us.

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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Commentary Debt Ceiling Joe Biden Kevin Mccarthy Mitch Mcconnell Republicans