Biden and McCarthy step back from the abyss: It's a huge defeat for Donald Trump

Against the odds, D.C. went back to normal this week with a bipartisan deal — and a big defeat for Trumpism

By Brian Karem


Published June 1, 2023 9:17AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talk as they depart the U.S. Capitol on March 17, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talk as they depart the U.S. Capitol on March 17, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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

On Wednesday evening the House finally passed debt ceiling legislation — over the heads of the members of the Freedom Caucus, who threatened "a reckoning" for Speaker Kevin McCarthy because he compromised with Democrats, and over the heads of some progressives who felt the bill sold them out.

While compromise has often been the key to our democracy, for some today it is as popular as Marjorie Taylor Greene banging the gavel and asking for decorum in the House — it gets a lot of laughs, but nobody takes it seriously.

This week, that changed.

One of the symptoms of the cancer that afflicts our political system is the "zero-sum game."

Since the Newt Gingrich era or, some will argue, since the Richard Nixon era — and they wouldn't be wrong — there is the idea that politics is an all-or-nothing venture.

Nixon and his "silent majority" were without doubt the impetus for much of this. He was addressing the war on Vietnam and called on the "silent majority" to support him and his "secret plan" for peace. The implication was that if you cast your lot with Nixon it was a total win, and if you didn't buy what he was selling, then you lost everything.

Ronald Reagan leaned into that mindset a bit more, but it found its chief proponent in Gingrich as speaker of the House during the Clinton years. Books have been written about his brazen political polarization and partisan prejudice, as well as his misuse of the words "communist," "fascist," "patriot" and "traitor." Instead of working together with political opponents to achieve solutions, Gingrich led the Russian Revolution — sorry, I mean, the Republican Revolution — that embraced extremism in politics. Obstruction, name-calling and gridlock became the norm.

If that sounds familiar, it is because Donald Trump perfected it. With his innate ability at hucksterism and bombast, Trump is the crowning achievement of what American politics has become since Richard Nixon: a festering dung heap. 

Michael Cohen, Trump's former confidant and attorney, believes it was a natural move. "He's played the zero-sum game his entire life, and thus fit well within the GOP's modus operandi," he told me. 

The art of the deal? No. It's the art of all or nothing. He still plays that game. Trump is now finding out how that game ends. He's facing a felony charge in Manhattan (Cohen is set to testify in that case) and is the focus of as many as three other criminal investigations, from potential seditious conspiracy to his refusal to return classified documents and numerous campaign finance violations.

"His Achilles heel is his lack of loyalty and appreciation for those in his close orbit — and, as an extension, the entire United States," Cohen explained.

Trump became blinded by his obsession with winning and threw everyone under the bus. That has been his undoing. 

"Imagine for a moment: Had Michael Cohen not extricated himself from the Trump cult, not met with Mueller, not testified before six congressional committees and the Manhattan district attorney's office. Where would Trump be today, politically?" Cohen asked.

Trump's adherence to the doctrine of winning at all costs will ultimately cost him everything.

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Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy took a step back from that abyss this week by working out a compromise on the debt ceiling. But the implications are much more important than the national debt, which the deal does very little to address.

Shalanda Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and a Democrat highly respected by most Republicans, said this on Tuesday in the Brady Briefing Room: "I've worked in many divided government situations. I think this is where you would expect a bipartisan agreement to land. It's just the reality."

And the reality is that many Republicans and Democrats hated the compromise. "I want to be clear: This agreement represents a compromise, which means no one gets everything that they want, and hard choices had to be made," Young said. "Negotiations require give-and-take. That's the responsibility of governing."

Republican Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, evoking the mindset of the Texas hill country he represents, called the deal a "turd sandwich." 

Biden took some heat from the press on his tactics: He said he "wouldn't negotiate" and then he did. (Hint: Saying you won't negotiate is itself a negotiating tactic.)

Rep. Matt Gaetz of the Freedom Caucus told Newsmax, in his best Yosemite Sam impression, that the agreement amounted to fightin' words. "If a majority of Republicans are against a piece of legislation, and you use Democrats to pass it, that would immediately be a black-letter violation of the deal we had with McCarthy," he said. 

In other words, if McCarthy shows actual leadership, the hostage-takers will cut his throat and move to oust him. Better start sending out the "proof of life" request.

And what is it that the Freedom Caucus labels a "black-letter" violation? National unity.

They favor the scorched-earth policy of Donald Trump, the Gingrich zero-sum game. They are too blinded by their own ambition to understand that all they can do is destroy. They cannot build anything. They don't know how.

President Biden took some heat from the press about his tactics in coming to a compromise with McCarthy. He said he "wouldn't negotiate," but he did. Reporters asked him about that. (Hint: saying you are not going to negotiate is itself a  negotiation tactic, and Biden knows it.) Reporters asked press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to guarantee a deal — when she wasn't on the negotiating team. In other words, the press handled the issue about as well as we have handled the Biden administration from its inception: We stink.

Nobody was listening, but two weeks ago we knew the truth: Both Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the world from the White House that there would be no default on the national debt. "We're not going to default. We know it. They know it," McConnell said from the sticks at the White House two weeks ago. Some of us even reported it that way.

What we've witnessed is political theater. At the end of the day, "This isn't about the debt," as former Tea Party congressman Joe Walsh told me Tuesday. "If they want to do something about the debt, 70 percent of it is all the entitlements and mandatory spending — and they won't touch defense. They go after non-defense discretionary spending. If we had a $100 budget, they're negotiating over pennies. It's a joke." 

Walsh said that if he were still in Congress, "I'd probably be one of those saying we didn't get enough. But the whole thing is a joke." It's true enough that this compromise deal does almost nothing to reduce the debt.

Walsh did note that these negotiations are a return to Washington norms. Biden and McConnell, for all the criticism they get from their opposition, still are among the most seasoned (OK, among the oldest and most experienced) politicians in the country. They are also very good at brokering deals. You may not like the deal they cut, but at the end of the day they got both sides to work together. Gridlock? No. Some see this as a small victory, others as a great failure. It is neither.

Biden, McCarthy and McConnell cut the legs out from under the hostage-takers. The Freedom Caucus are the biggest losers in this deal.

What happened was that because of this deal McCarthy may be able to rely on some Democratic votes when the Freedom Caucus tries to flex its muscles and oust him as speaker. That's progress, whether you like him or not. The politics behind this deal cannot be dismissed or trivialized: Biden, McCarthy and McConnell cut the legs out from under the hostage-takers. The Freedom Caucus, should it try to get rid of McCarthy, will now have a much more difficult time doing it. They are the biggest losers in this deal. This frees McCarthy up to embrace saner and more serious minds — or at least to find them, if he can. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats will do what they did Wednesday on the open floor: Allow all the Republicans to vote first to show how fractured they are and then swoop in and "save the day." Hollywood loves this kind of stuff. This was noted by Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who said the vote was about saving a Congress "held hostage by an extremist faction in Congress which threatens to force a devastating fiscal default on American society if it does not get to dismantle social programs and destroy environmental protection."

Chip Roy said the Republican Party is headed for "a reckoning." The Freedom Caucus has made clear what they intend to do, according to Rep. Dan Bishop. "It is clear that, as steward of Republican unity, Kevin [McCarthy] has made an unrecoverable failure," Bishop told Axios — adding that the motion to vacate "will be at a time and circumstance of our choosing."

That unity they speak of is within the Republican Party, not the country as a whole. The compromise deal on the debt ceiling ought to expose Republicans for the national cancer they are.  

The Gingrich revolution is dead. Donald Trump effectively killed it by endowing clowns like Gaetz and Greene with power they cannot wield and do not deserve.

There is a reason most people, including many Republicans, laughed at Greene when she called for decorum in the House as she wielded the gavel. She has had no decorum. She is incapable of it.

Finally, after all these years, we're seeing a Congress capable of working together — even if  they differ wildly in their views.

In itself, that's a repudiation of Trumpism — the repudiation Michael Cohen has encouraged for several years. It is a repudiation of the divisiveness Joe Walsh has preached against since he left Congress.

You don't have to like everything in the compromise deal — one that we all knew was coming — but it's a breath of fresh air in D.C. after years of the name-calling and extremist tactics that have reduced our supposed representatives to sideshow barkers, clowns or worse.

This is further evidence that Donald Trump's time on the national stage is up, the Freedom Caucus is neutered and there are still a few adults around to get things done — oh, and that Kevin McCarthy is proving to be a useful fool.

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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