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Stirewaltisms: Four Lessons From the Ziggy Stardust Caucus
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Stirewaltisms: Four Lessons From the Ziggy Stardust Caucus

Practical takeaways from an impractical performance.

Republican Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene on the House floor Thursday, January 5, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images.)

Our Congress is the David Bowie of gridlock. Every time you think it has exhausted every possible way to express its creativity, it finds new and fascinating ways to capture our attention by mastery of its art. 

The last time the House of Representatives needed more than 11 ballots to choose a speaker, it was 1859 and the nation was locked in an existential battle over slavery that would two years later erupt in a devastating civil war. One party, the Whigs, was dying. Another party, the Republicans, was being born. This time, the fight is almost totally devoid of ideological differences and is being conducted within the ranks of just one party over which tactics or stunts it will use to harass the party in control of the Senate and White House.

It takes some creativity to find a way to have gridlock even before one convenes, but to do so when the stakes are so preposterously low? That’s the masterwork right there.

There is an almost dadaist quality to this performance. It doesn’t really matter who Republicans pick, since the party is substantially aligned on most policy issues and has no chance to advance measures on its own with a wafer-thin majority in just one chamber of Congress. The basic question is about who will be the most outraged and intolerant in its dealings with the Democrats. 

The issue, insofar as there is anything here beyond celebrity, personality, and fundraising, is not what Republicans will support, but what means they will use to prove their loyalty to the gang. Almost everyone in the conference would support a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, but would they be willing to breach the debt ceiling to show their support? Everyone in the conference supports investigating Hunter Biden’s business dealings, but who is willing to immediately start a doomed impeachment of Biden’s father over them? Neither approach would deliver the putative goal, but one would prove a total unwillingness to compromise.

As of this writing, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California is poised for a 12th vote in his years-long quest to be speaker. The sadly funny part is that even if the 20 or so members who have been busting his chops in these votes had their way and some radical got the gavel, she or he would have no real power to pursue the tactics the rebels desire. In a credit collapse or similar crisis, it wouldn’t take long for five Republicans to join Democrats in closing the lid on Pandora’s box. Fittingly, it would be even easier using the new rules to empower dissenters that the holdouts want. 

As with Bowie’s work in the early 1990s, like his saxophone solos on Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby, even if you don’t enjoy it, you have to appreciate the commitment to the art.

All of that said, there are certainly some practical lessons about politics to be taken from the very impractical performance that we are watching, however it turns out. Here are four to think on:

You can only get demoted in your own army: Democrats have been salivating for years about bringing down Donald Trump. We heard so often that “the walls are closing in” that it started to feel claustrophobic. But every failed attempt seemed only to strengthen Trump’s cultlike grip on the GOP. But it is, of course, Trump who is doing himself in. His massive botch of the 2022 midterm primaries and unwelcome presence during the general election campaign made him look like a loser. Then when he tried to play it smart and back the establishment candidate for speaker, Trump’s own former loyalists ignored him. Trump tried to insulate himself from the loss by making his endorsements half-hearted, but it still counts as a high-profile failure. As is usually the case in politics, it is your allies who do you in, not your enemies.

Schadenfreude is poisonous: Republicans and right-wing media could not get enough of the many sufferings of Rep. Nancy Pelosi as she sought a return to the speaker’s office in 2019. Much was made of the dozen Democrats who lodged protest votes and laughed at her puny four-vote win. They even did it over Pelosi’s runs for minority leader in 2015 and 2017. It was satisfying and profitable to tell a story about “Democrats in disarray,” the right-wing counterpart to “Republicans pounce.” But Pelosi never broke a sweat and the coverage and talk only helped unify Democrats—and set the stage for this flea circus. The right response when your opponent is melting down is not to mock or delight but to express high-minded regret. It ages better.

Selling out is a buyers market: Listening to Marjorie Taylor Greene explain political strategy is hilarious, yes, but also perversely instructive. She and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio sold out their fellow Freedom Caucus members in exchange for plum positions in McCarthy’s leadership team. Greene lecturing Steve Bannon and others about the value of cooperation and the need to get on with the business at hand without even a nod to her reversals is remarkable, and not just for the irony. It is very human to wonder about betraying core beliefs for personal advantage. But while it can sometimes be profitable in the short term, it’s usually a bust. Our principles are most valuable where they are, inside of us. Like a new car, once you drive them off the lot, they depreciate quickly.

Democracy is overrated: If you’ve enjoyed the speakership show, get ready, because this is just the teaser. What we’re seeing is very much the forerunner of the cutthroat, hyperbolic pandering that will take place in the Republican presidential nominating process now underway. The primary elections will produce so much radicalism aimed at the very online and cable-news-habituated small-dollar donor class and base that it will make us think wistfully of the quaint kookiness of January ’23.

Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 42.8%
Average disapproval: 52.4%
Net score: -9.6 points                            

Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.2 points

Change from one month ago: ↑ 4.6 points

[Average includes: Fox News: 44% approve-56% disapprove; USA Today/Suffolk: 45% approve, 52% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 43% approve-49% disapprove; Monmouth: 43% approve-50% disapprove; Reuters/Ipsos: 39% approve-55% disapprove] 

Polling Roulette

New York Times: “For half a decade now, influential young scientists have denounced NASA’s decision to name its deep-space telescope after James E. Webb, who led the space agency to the cusp of the 1969 moon landing. This man, they insisted, was a homophobe who oversaw a purge of gay employees. … ‘I can say conclusively,’ Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi wrote, ‘that there is zero evidence that Webb is guilty of the allegations against him.’ That, he figured, would be that. He was wrong. The struggle over the naming of the world’s most powerful space telescope has grown yet more contentious and bitter. … This controversy cuts to the core of who is worthy to memorialize and how past human accomplishment should be balanced with modern standards of social justice. And it echoes a heated debate among historians over presentism, which is the tendency to use the moral lens of today to interpret past eras and people. Some historians say a politically engaged, critical reading of history, so long as it is not dogmatic, is unavoidable.”

Detroit News: “Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., announced Thursday that she won’t seek re-election in 2024, setting the stage for a competitive Senate race in a key battleground state during a presidential election year. … Democrats, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, were re-elected to several statewide offices in November. Others whose names will be in the mix: Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Attorney General Dana Nessel and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who gained a national following last year after going viral with her pushback against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Democratic U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens also could be eyeing promotions. … Early speculation is also likely to focus intensely on U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who moved to Michigan after his unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign. … On the Republican side, Rep.-elect John James, who lost to Stabenow in 2018 and won a House seat in November, is likely to be mentioned as a prospect.”

Four elections to watch this year: Politico: “Washington is ready to zoom ahead to the 2024 elections, with a presidential election and control of Congress up for grabs. But there are matters to settle in 2023 first. … The Kentucky gubernatorial contest has already gotten off to a chaotic start, with a slew of prominent Republicans in the state lining up to challenge Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who is seeking a second term. … In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is term-limited in the otherwise red-leaning seat. Only one notable candidate — Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry — has declared their candidacy thus far. … A big 2023 election that could have ramifications over future redistricting fights is a Wisconsin state Supreme Court contest in early April. … A win by a liberal-leaning jurist would flip the balance of the court… Both [state legislature] chambers are up in [Virginia], which will be the only state that has a split Legislature in 2023.”

Rare coalition governments emerge in Pennsylvania and Ohio: Washington Post: “[E]ven as the House was descending into chaos on Tuesday, two other Houses — both Ohio’s and Pennsylvania’s — shocked political watchers by forming a very similar coalition to elect their new speakers. … In Ohio, state Rep. Jason Stephens secured the votes of all 32 Democrats and 22 Republicans to defeat the more conservative official GOP nominee for speaker, state Rep. Derek Merrin, 54-43. The more similar situation came in Pennsylvania, where the chamber was narrowly divided. Democrats won a slight majority of state House seats in November’s election, 102-101, but one of their candidates died and two others won other offices. … Mark Rozzi wound up receiving the votes of 16 Republicans, including outgoing speaker and now-Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, and winning the speakership 115-85. After the vote, Rozzi announced he would become an independent.”

Tanned, rested, ready?: Politico: “A year makes a difference after all. [President Biden] begins 2023 politically stronger than 12 months ago, bolstered by his party’s surprise midterms success, a robust set of legislative accomplishments and the resilience of the alliance he rallied to support Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. … There are challenges still on the horizon, from an economy threatening to slow down, to the war in Europe, to an incoming Republican House majority threatening gridlock and investigations. But those in the president’s circle believe there is a strong and growing likelihood that he will run again and that an announcement could potentially come earlier than had been expected, possibly as soon as mid-February… Revamping the primary calendar to put Biden-friendly South Carolina first was another sign of intention to run again. … Though some Democrats still express worry about Biden’s age, their public doubts were largely silenced by the party’s strong November showing,

As House flounders, Biden and McConnell tout bipartisanship—New York Times

Rick Scott, who swore off 2024 presidential campaign, launches national TV blitz — The Hill 

Louisiana’s Kennedy passes on governor bid—Politico

Gallego preps for 2024 showdown with Sinema—Politico

Shapiro taps anti-Trump GOPer for Secretary of State—NBC News

“I never claimed to be Jewish. … I said I was Jew-ish.”—Representative George Santos of New York’s 3rd Congressional District addressing his herculean résumé padding in an interview with the New York Post.

You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the perspicacious Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tucker Carlson, and former President Donald Trump. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images.)
Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tucker Carlson, and former President Donald Trump. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images.)

Flattery is the fault we most readily forgive in our friends, and my friends, I am in a very forgiving mood this week. Several readers went to golf themes for our photo of Pellegrino populists, and a few of you even went to the 1980 masterpiece Caddyshack for inspiration. I acknowledge and accept this as an obvious ploy to win me over, so good on you. But the winner was the reader who not only went to Caddyshack but identified the perfect character, at the perfect moment in the film to correspond to the Trumpy tableau in the photo AND managed a neat couplet too.

“The man worthwhile is the man who steals files and can still smile ’cause Cheney lost the fight for her seat.”—Michael Johnson, Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Winner, Pet Shop Boys Division:
“She’s got the brains, I’ve got the looks, you’ve got the money—what could go wrong?”—Jon Putnam, Salem, Massachusetts

Winner, Short-Fingered Vulgarian Division:
“I’ve got a hand guy who can help you with your problem. He gave me these babies.”—Blake Royal, Houston, TexasWinner, MTG SBD Division:
“Seriously?  You don’t smell that?  It’s like the fifth time.  Who could be doing that?”—Brent Hall, Edina, Minnesota

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the top entrants and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!

[Melbourne, Australia] Herald Sun: Thor the walrus put on an X-rated show of his own — after his arrival put an end to a town’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display. As huge crowds gathered to see the Arctic mammal lounging at a harbour, council officials axed the light show so he was not disturbed. But parents had to cover their children’s eyes when the two-ton beast appeared to perform a solo sex act on the slipway on Saturday. Footage of Thor’s un-family friendly performance in Scarborough, [North Yorkshire, England] went viral on social media. One wag joked: ‘Walrus misunderstood “Are you coming to Scarborough fair”?’ Another posted: ‘David Attenborough missed that in Blue Planet.’ … An aquarium spokesman said: ‘Please do not worry — he appears well and is just taking a well-deserved rest after his long adventure. Be respectful of his rest and try not to disturb him.’ … Thor is thought to have left late on New Year’s Eve.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Broken News, a new book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.