December 8, 2023

Washington: The Exodus

Congress has been buffeted by a rash of announced departures, but certain Swamp creatures keep hanging on.

With apologies to Dick Nixon, we won’t have Kevin McCarthy to kick around anymore. Nor, as of last count, 37 other members of Congress.

Nixon, a Californian like McCarthy, made that self-referential comment to the assembled press back in 1962 just after having lost the Golden State’s 1962 gubernatorial contest to Democrat Pat Brown. It had been a tough stretch for Nixon, who two years earlier had lost the presidential election to a younger, more handsome, more charismatic John F. Kennedy. That one-two electoral punch was enough to chase Nixon from politics, at least for a few years.

Likewise, it’s been a tough stretch for McCarthy, who two months ago became the first House speaker ever to be ousted from the post — in this case, by a vote of strange bedfellows: every Democrat and just eight members of his own party. And Wednesday, clearly still stinging from the way he was dumped, he announced his retirement from Congress.

“I have decided to depart the House at the end of this year to serve America in new ways,” McCarthy said. “I know my work is only getting started.”

Alas, McCarthy should’ve waited another year before “getting started” on his post-congressional career. By leaving office a year early, he’s setting the stage for a special election in California, though it likely won’t be held until next summer. That’ll leave the seat vacant, and it’ll leave the GOP with no margin for error. “It’s one thing to quit to take another public office, or for dire health reasons,” writes National Review’s Dan McLaughlin, who called McCarthy’s early exit “a shabby thing to do.”

As we mentioned earlier, McCarthy isn’t the only one skedaddling from the Swamp. North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry, who served as interim speaker between McCarthy and Johnson, announced Tuesday that he won’t seek reelection. But at least McHenry will finish out the remainder of his term.

To his credit, McCarthy’s retirement announcement was upbeat, and it contained no animosity toward his fellow Republicans. The same couldn’t be said for his GOP nemesis and the leader of the Gang of Eight that ousted him. Florida Congressman and Freedom Caucus member Matt Gaetz had a one-word reaction to McCarthy’s announcement, and it wasn’t even a real word. “McLeavin’.”

But while Gaetz was doing his best Billy “White Shoes” Johnson and serving as the poster boy for the pettiness of our politics, Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene was counting votes. “Now in 2024,” she posted, “we will have a 1 seat majority in the House of Representatives. Congratulations Freedom Caucus … I can assure you Republican voters didn’t give us the majority to crash the ship.”

Greene is certainly right about the GOP’s razor-thin majority, but she’s wrong to criticize the Freedom Caucus. The process of finding a new speaker was messy and at times embarrassing, but the result of McCarthy’s ouster was an unequivocal improvement: the election as speaker of the far more conservative Mike Johnson.

Why the mass exodus, which now numbers seven senators and 31 representatives? It’s hard to say, but Washington seems broken, seems like a thankless grind. McHenry disagrees:

There has been a great deal of handwringing and ink spilled about the future of this institution because some — like me — have decided to leave. Those concerns are exaggerated. I’ve seen a lot of change over 20 years. I truly feel this institution is on the verge of the next great turn. Whether its 1974, 1994, or 2010, we’ve seen the House evolve over time. Evolutions are often lumpy and disjointed but at each stage, new leaders emerge. There are many smart and capable members who remain, and others are on their way. I’m confident the House is in good hands.

McCarthy’s assessment seems more mixed. As he noted in a Wall Street Journal farewell, “It often seems that the more Washington does, the worse America gets.” Who can argue with this? And yet what an awful admission for a former House speaker to make. McCarthy was, after all, as responsible as anyone for what went on in Washington in recent years.

And yet all isn’t lost, at least not in the former speaker’s eyes. “The most reliable solution to what ails America is before our eyes,” he said: “everyday men and women who are raising families, showing up for work, volunteering, and pursuing the American Dream with passion and purpose.”

One more credit to McCarthy: He knew when to get out. Unlike a rusty old pug who keeps climbing back into the ring for one more brain-scrambling beatdown, McCarthy is leaving at the top of his cognitive game. Sadly, we can’t say the same thing for Joe Biden, or Nancy Pelosi, or Mitch McConnell, or Dianne Feinstein, may she rest in peace.

Columnist Henry Olsen, one of the sharpest of political observers, notes that McCarthy now joins his fellow “young guns” — former Speaker Paul Ryan and former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — on the outside well before their time. “Their failure to create the GOP of their dreams,” he writes, “would be cautionary enough. Combined with the continuing failure of the Republicans who unseated them to construct a durable, governing alternative, it’s a tale of how a party that loses touch with its voters can wander aimlessly for years.”

McCarthy, as is his nature, refuses to be so dour. As he said in closing: “I agree with President Reagan’s observation that ‘all great change in America starts at the dinner table.’ Despite the best attempts by special interest groups and the news media to divide us, I have seen the goodness of the American people. They are what will ultimately uphold the enduring values of our great nation. We all have a role to play in that effort.”

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