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A Bout Time
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A Bout Time

Three clashes that will define politics in 2023.

Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/Washington Post/Getty Images.)

Control of the House is about to flip, and probably control of the Senate along with it, and that portends many a gripping political battle between the parties next year. Right?

Eh.

I suppose the 800 different House investigations of Joe Biden and his family that are on the way might unearth something juicy. But you know how it tends to go when a Republican Congress faces off with a Democratic president. After handing Donald Trump a blank check in 2017 (with another blank check to come if he returns in 2025), the GOP will cynically revert to pretending that it cares about federal spending. There’ll be much sturm und drang in the House about deficits, weeks or months of Fox-friendly debt-ceiling brinksmanship, then a quiet capitulation when the internal polling comes back.

We’ve seen that movie before. It’s boring. And the next time we watch it, having witnessed the small-government fervor of the Tea Party era devolve into big-government strongman populism, it’ll play less like drama than farce.

The real action next year will be the power struggles within parties, which seems fitting for this age. Democrats and Republicans have formed uneasy coalitions at the moment, with the educated left veering away culturally from working-class liberals and the right an unhappy marriage of Trump fanatics, Trump skeptics, and the “literally anyone with an ‘R’ after their name” partisans between them.

The truly interesting fights in 2023 will be those in which leaders of rival factions within the parties collide.

Kevin McCarthy vs. Mitch McConnell

One reason it’s hard to get excited about the partisan brawls to come is that, on the issues that are most likely to turn into flashpoints, Mitch McConnell is apt to align with Chuck Schumer against Kevin McCarthy.

It won’t be Republicans vs. Democrats. It’ll be Republicans vs. Democrats and Republicans.

Start with Ukraine. Left to his own devices, I suspect McCarthy would stay true to his establishment Republican roots and back the Ukrainians in their fight against Russian oppression. As it is, his reign as speaker will be short unless he keeps Trump and the anti-anti-Russia MAGA wing of the caucus happy. That’s why he took to grumbling last week about no more “blank checks” for Ukraine, as if that accurately described current U.S. policy.

A few weeks ago, writing about the coming war on the right over Ukraine funding, I speculated that McConnell won’t stand for it. He’s an old-school cold warrior, a hawk’s hawk, and not beholden to Trump for his power the way McCarthy is. He made a point of visiting Zelensky in Kyiv earlier this year to show his solidarity with the Ukrainian cause. If McCarthy moves to cut funding for the war, Mitch will resist, or so I thought.

On Friday, he proved me right.

Ukraine isn’t the only subject on which he and McCarthy will butt heads, though. The fight for which House Republicans are really spoiling is a new standoff over raising the debt ceiling. And it’s not just the MAGA wing, alarmingly: “Sane” Republican Nancy Mace is also down for playing chicken with America’s creditworthiness.

McConnell lived through this nightmare in the early days of the Tea Party Congress a decade ago. Years later, when his party enjoyed total control of government, he was quick to reassure voters that there’d be no similar brinksmanship on his watch. “There is zero chance—no chance — we won’t raise the debt ceiling. No chance,” he said in 2017. “America’s not going to default.”

He’s a bottom-line politician and his bottom line since 2020 has been to win back some of the suburban voters whom Trump scared away. Bring those people into the fold and, combined with working-class voters who are moving right on cultural issues, the GOP will have a formidable coalition. So McConnell has pursued a “no sudden moves” strategy as leader, opting not even to propose a policy agenda for a new Republican-led Senate next year to keep voters focused entirely on Biden’s failings.

A manufactured debt-ceiling crisis that risks fiscal calamity is the very last thing he’ll want in 2023 since it would remind suburbanites that a MAGA-fied Republican Party will never govern responsibly. That’s why he made a deal with Schumer to raise the debt ceiling last year despite caterwauling from Trump, never mind that Trump once mused as president that Congress should do away with the debt ceiling entirely. McConnell had his eye on the next election and understood that a debt-ceiling fiasco wouldn’t help the party win it.

But the MAGA wing will demand it, not because they care particularly about cutting spending but because they’re convinced there are only two types of people in the GOP. They’re in Washington to fight, and if that means picking dumb, potentially catastrophic fights, so be it. The higher the stakes, the more impressed by their resolve you’re supposed to be.

McCarthy will cringe privately at all this, knowing that a debt-ceiling standoff can end only two ways. One: Republicans refuse to compromise and America hits the ceiling, triggering a technical default on the country’s debts and an international financial panic. Two: McCarthy buckles and raises the ceiling with help from Democrats over the objections of Trump and the MAGA wing, which will likely end his speakership.

But he’ll have no choice. He has to fight.

This dynamic, in which McCarthy takes his cues from the base and McConnell takes his cues from swing voters, will recur again and again. It’s a given, for instance, that some House MAGA Republicans will want to pass federal restrictions on abortion. But McConnell knows what the polls say about that and will resist. He won’t need to worry much about it if he’s still the minority leader; but if he’s majority leader, he’ll likely need to decide whether to put a House-passed 15-week abortion ban on the Senate floor, knowing what a difficult vote that’ll be for some of his incumbents.

And then there’s impeachment. The House may yet find a reason to impeach Joe Biden, whether valid or contrived, yet it’s all but certain that the votes in the Senate to remove him won’t be there. McConnell won’t want to get sidetracked with an impeachment trial, especially if the grounds are dubious. But McCarthy may feel he has to follow through to appease the populists in his base.

The predictable result of McCarthy and McConnell being chronically at odds will be to breed (more) contempt for both among Republican voters. McConnell will take the brunt of it, but his leadership position is relatively secure. So angry righties will take it out on McCarthy instead, calling him weak for letting himself be bossed around by the Broken Old Crow and pushing for his ouster. Result: In a year or two, McConnell might find himself negotiating with House Speaker Jim Jordan instead, and Speaker Jordan will have more to prove by way of his willingness to “fight” than McCarthy did. The debt-ceiling hostage crisis of 2024 might not end as happily as next year’s crisis will.

Donald Trump vs. Ron DeSantis

My very first post for The Dispatch was devoted to the coming primary fight between Trump and DeSantis and how it might start sooner than we think. Trump has a strategic interest in shrinking DeSantis’ margin of victory in this year’s Florida gubernatorial election, I argued. The better DeSantis does, the more credible his pitch to Republican primary voters will be that he’s a more electable version of Trump. If he can say “Trump won Florida by 3 points but I won by 10,” plenty of righties will hear him out.

That gives Trump an incentive to pick a fight with DeSantis before the November election, in hopes that some MAGA voters in Florida otherwise inclined to turn out for the governor against Charlie Crist will stay home in protest.

But he hasn’t picked a fight with DeSantis. DeSantis has picked a fight—a small fight, but a symbolic one—with him.

On Monday the Washington Examiner reported that DeSantis has ridden to the rescue of Republican Joe O’Dea, the party’s Senate nominee in Colorado. O’Dea is a heavy underdog in a blue state, but he’s hanging around in the polls, giving him an outside chance at an upset if a red wave gathers nationally. O’Dea has also been shrewd about maneuvering to try to appeal to a Democratic electorate, staking out moderate positions on policy and noisily insisting that it’s time for the GOP to move on from Trump.

Most political leaders are fine with being bashed by members of their own party in the name of wooing crossover voters. When Nancy Pelosi was asked recently how it felt to have young Democratic candidates telling voters that it’s time for a new Speaker, she shrugged it off by saying, “Just win.” The man-baby who leads the Republican Party wasn’t as gracious to O’Dea, however, calling him a “RINO” in a Truth Social post and hinting that MAGA voters in Colorado should punish him for his lack of fealty by staying home on Election Day.

Enter DeSantis.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is recording a robocall for underdog Senate contender Joe O’Dea, a boost for the Colorado Republican after former President Donald Trump urged grassroots conservatives to abandon his campaign.

“Hello this is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. America needs strong leadership and desperately. That’s why I’m endorsing Joe O’Dea for U.S. Senate. Colorado, please vote for Joe O’Dea,” DeSantis says in the robocall, a recording of which was provided to the Washington Examiner on Sunday by the O’Dea campaign. “I’ve watched Joe from a distance. And I’m impressed.”

“Joe’s focused on building the wall and cracking down on crime,” DeSantis adds. “He’ll stand-up to the big spending politicians in both parties and cut red tape. Vote Joe O’Dea and let’s turn Colorado red!”

DeSantis has been careful all year not to provoke Trump, knowing that any friction between them that alienates MAGA voters before the election will hold down his all-important margin against Charlie Crist. But Trump’s attack on O’Dea was so selfish and moronic that I suspect he couldn’t pass on the opportunity when it arose. It’s a chance to show that he cares more about beating Democrats than Trump does, making him the truer leader between the two of them. If O’Dea ends up pulling the upset it’ll be a feather in DeSantis’ cap, making him the savior who convinced MAGA populists to turn out for the “RINO” even after the Great MAGA King encouraged them to stay home.

And it won’t be the only evidence that Team DeSantis will cite to convince Republican voters that Trump cares far more about himself than he does about keeping Democrats out of power.

If you think I’m reading too much into the significance of a single robocall, let it be noted that certain other people are paying close attention to it.

The only thing dumber than Trump forfeiting his role as party leader to DeSantis in Colorado is doubling down on the forfeiture. Only the most fanatic MAGA slobberer prefers a smaller Republican Senate majority to a larger, slightly less “loyal” one.

The conflict over O’Dea would be a curio if DeSantis were set to underperform next month against Crist. If he were to win reelection by 3, 4, or 5 points, say, his electability argument against Trump would be up in smoke and he’d stand no chance in a primary. To pry populist voters away from their hero, DeSantis needs a daunting margin of victory that would function as something close to incontrovertible proof that he’s a stronger candidate than the reigning party nominee.

As chance would have it, with the polls breaking toward Republicans everywhere lately, increasingly it looks like he’s going to get it.

It’s been more than 15 years since a Republican won a gubernatorial election comfortably in Florida. DeSantis won in 2018 by less than a point and his predecessor, Rick Scott, won two elections each by razor-thin margins. Trump’s 3-point victory over Biden in the presidential race two years ago was a landslide by traditional Florida margins. Yet, with two weeks to Election Day this year, DeSantis is cruising by eight points and stands a real chance at a double-digit victory. In fact, the last four polls tracked by FiveThirtyEight have had him ahead by margins of 10 or 11.

Which probably explains why DeSantis felt bold enough to challenge Trump (indirectly) in Colorado by endorsing O’Dea. He’s headed for a landslide. There’s nothing Trump can do at this point to deflate his balloon.

If DeSantis does go on to rout Crist, I think he’s all but guaranteed to challenge Trump in 2024. As Casey DeSantis is reportedly wont to say, you have a moment. A 10-point win would be irresistible evidence that, if there’s ever going to be a Ron DeSantis “moment” nationally, that moment is now. And many members of the “literally anyone with an ‘R’ after their name” faction of the party will clamor for it, resigned to supporting Trump again if they have to but wanting a good look on a national stage at the guy who just blew the roof off in Florida and tried to save the party in Colorado when Trump refused out of spite.

We’re two weeks away from all but cementing a Trump/DeSantis primary death match beginning next year.

Joe Biden vs. Everyone

Biden’s chief challenge in 2023 won’t be his own party, of course. It’ll be House Republicans, from those 800 investigations I mentioned to the fight-for-fight’s-sake debt-ceiling nihilism.

But if Democrats end up being shellacked in two weeks, as looks likely, some of the whispers on the left that the party should seek out a new nominee in 2024 will become shouts.

Modern presidents have proved surprisingly resilient electorally after suffering massive midterm losses. Bill Clinton saw the House turn Republican for the first time in 40 years in 1994, then cruised to reelection two years later. Barack Obama’s party lost more than 60 House seats in 2010 but he won comfortably over Mitt Romney in 2012. Even Trump overperformed expectations in 2020, nearly winning despite a House drubbing in 2018, impeachment, and a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

No president wants to see his agenda paralyzed by having the opposing party win control of Congress, but divided government isn’t necessarily bad for his own reelection prospects. Voters might be willing to stick with him in a second term if they know that the other party is positioned in the legislature to limit the damage he can do. And those in the president’s base who feel lukewarm about him might gain new appreciation for him once he becomes their champion against the other party’s new congressional majorities.

At least, that’s what we might expect with a “normal” president. With the president we have, boy, I don’t know.

Maybe that’s nothing more than a long pause while Biden gathered his thoughts, but many Americans will watch and wonder. Doubts about Biden’s age and cognitive wherewithal have produced some astonishing polling this year even within his own party about whether he should run for a second term. In July, after his job approval had crashed, a New York Times/Siena poll found 64 percent of Democrats wanted a different nominee in 2024. A CNN poll published around the same time put the number at 75 percent. Biden’s job approval recovered somewhat this fall but his base’s enthusiasm to see him run again remained low as of last month. CNN had it 52/48 among Democrats, with 72 percent of Americans overall opposed to another Biden run. An ABC/Washington Post poll put Democratic support at 35/56 when leaners are included.

What do you think will happen to those numbers if the party loses the House and Senate on his watch?

Which way do you think they’ll move if the Fed bludgeons the country into a recession next year, as some forecasters now believe is inevitable? Or if Republican investigations in the House manage to damage Biden meaningfully?

Will Democrats grow more or less confident that the president is up for the rigors of a second national campaign when they watch him give answers like this?

Biden’s student loan forgiveness initiative was done through executive action, of course, not through legislation. He spent nearly two years debating with his team whether to pull the trigger on it and whether it could possibly be constitutional, and finally followed through just two months ago. The details shouldn’t have slipped his mind.

A few Democrats in Congress have already called on him not to run again. Some progressive stars have declined to endorse him for reelection so far, keeping their powder dry in case he gets a primary challenge from the left. There’s a fair chance that, within six months, his party will have lost control of Congress, the economy will have tanked, and his job approval will once again be cratering. Coincidentally, that’ll be right around the time Democrats will need a firm decision from him on 2024 so that other hopefuls have time to build their campaigns.

There may, in other words, be a lot of chatter from the left over the winter—mostly in the form of anonymous whispers to the media, but not always—that President Joe did his good deed by defeating Trump in 2020 and now it’s time to pack it in. That’ll be especially so if Trump shocks everyone by deciding that he’s not running after all, as the only thing still binding Democratic voters to Biden is the fear/suspicion that he’s the only candidate capable of defeating the Orange Menace. Once the threat of a Trump renaissance is removed, liberal support for another Biden run will wither.

And even if Trump runs and the threat remains, the case that Democrats are better off with a younger, more charismatic nominee anyway will only grow along with Biden’s senescence. Next year, as Republicans set upon him, his own party will be busy quietly abandoning him.

Soon it’ll be Joe against the world.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.