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Stirewaltisms: Lessons in Power at a Time of Transition
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Stirewaltisms: Lessons in Power at a Time of Transition

The similarities and differences between Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images.)

When the history of our age gels, it will note that at a time when Congress had become so weak and ineffectual, it had two of its strongest leaders of all time.

Nancy Pelosi, 82, and Mitch McConnell, 80, arrived in Congress two years apart; him in the Senate in 1985, her in the House in 1987. Over the ensuing decades, they followed very different paths to mastery of the legislative branch but shared a dogged institutionalism. 

Pelosi ruled with a combination of blunt force and a well-funded favor bank even after reversals, while McConnell maintains his position by a combination of deference to his fellow Republican members and fearsome political acumen. Accordingly, her low moments have been of arrogant power while his have been of aversion to risk. But both have always been revered by their members for the loyalty and protection they afforded their stalwarts.

Rising to power at a time when Congress was changing from an Article I  dynamo to a stage set for a poorly rated reality show, Pelosi and McConnell stood out for both the intensity of their partisanship and their skill as tacticians. She became Democratic leader in the House in 2002 at age 62, he became Republican Senate leader in 2006 at age 64, both replacing younger predecessors who had come to be seen in their parties as too conciliatory for the new politics of obstruction and partisan absolutism. 

Both would be turned into gargoyles by the opposing party, used to scare up donations and malign candidates claiming to be independent voices as lackeys to one or the other. Both would also become occasional targets for ambitious radicals in their own parties, with each challenge meeting the same ignominious end. Rick Scott, who sought a promotion to the top job over McConnell after a disastrous cycle as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is only the most recent claimant to be swatted away. 

Republicans have been far harder on McConnell than Democrats have been on Pelosi. It stands to reason, since he is in many ways the last man standing from the pre-Trump Republican establishment. That makes him a convenient boogeyman for the hucksters of the nationalist right who have so long benefitted from but deeply resented his successes. 

Members of the GOP should observe closely what will transpire in the coming months in the House as Pelosi attempts a structured reorganization in which she steps down from her post as party leader but stays around as a House member to hand power to her likely successor, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. One assumes Pelosi will retire completely when and if the transition is complete—or at least Jeffries would hope so. It’s hard to be the new boss when the old one is still haunting the halls. Whether he can maintain order in a Democratic caucus that has become increasingly splintered by the ambition and absolutism of the progressive left is an entirely open question.

But that will hardly be the major problem of the post-Pelosi House.

Her most likely successor as speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, is so weak that he didn’t even attend Pelosi’s speech announcing her decision, letting House GOP No. 2, Steve Scalise, carry the flag for the party. McCarthy cited “meetings” for his absence, but the more obvious answer is reflected in news from earlier in the week: “In a closed-door meeting of Republicans on Monday, right-wing lawmakers including Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia extracted a promise that their leaders would investigate Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Justice Department for their treatment of defendants jailed in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.”

Woof.

Because of his relentless pandering to Greene and the other nationalists, the speaker in waiting lacks the respect of both those to whom he offers his obsequious court, including former President Donald Trump, as well the mainstream Republicans who make up the bulk of McCarthy’s caucus. But since the GOP will have only a majority of between four and six seats, even a little mutiny could doom him. Having almost finally obtained power by telling everyone what they wanted to hear, McCarthy finds himself mostly ignored by every faction. The months to come will be arduous at best, but could easily descend into chaos.

That will not happen in the Senate, where McConnell enjoys the respect of both his friends and enemies. But for how much longer? Though denied the majority because of kooky candidates, Senate Republicans were at least spared some of the kooks themselves, the silver lining of the GOP’s midterm miss. But McConnell will have to deal with some new nationalists, along with increasingly diffident members of that caucus who are already in the Senate.

Then, there is time. McConnell would be 84 at the end of his current term in 2026. The wide speculation in the Senate is that he will not seek another stint as GOP leader after his new two-year term ends.

As they watch the coming anguish in the House, Senate Republicans would be wise to make plans to avoid a similar fate that awaits their counterparts in the lower chamber and their captive leader. If they seek a people-pleasing vassal like McCarthy, they will obtain a similar result.


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.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance

Average approval: 42.0%
Average disapproval: 55.4%
Net score: -13.4 points

[Average includes: Reuters/Ipsos: 37% approve-57% disapprove; NBC News: 44% approve-53% disapprove; ABC News/Washington Post: 41% approve-53% disapprove; NewsNation: 44% approve-56% disapprove; CNN: 44% approve-58% disapprove] 

Polling Roulette

Percent who say big businesses are “having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days”:


TIME OUT: TICK, TICK, TIC

New York Times: “Humanity struggles to impose order on the small end of the time scale, too. Lately the second is running into trouble. … Earth’s rotation slows ever so slightly from year to year, and the astronomical second (like the astronomical day) has gradually grown longer than the atomic one. To compensate, starting in 1972, metrologists began occasionally inserting an extra second—a leap second—to the end of an atomic day. … Adding that extra second is no small task. Moreover, Earth’s rotation is slightly erratic, so the leap second is both irregular and unpredictable. … The process of squaring these two time scales has become so unruly that the world’s time mavens are making a bold proposal: to abandon the leap second by 2035. … Time is fraught with emotion. The leap second, though less visible to the public, also elicits strong opinions. The Vatican, for instance, has argued for keeping the leap second, on existential grounds.”


WALKER LOSES YARDAGE WITH TRUMP ANNOUNCEMENT 
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Donald Trump’s third campaign for the White House shifts attention from Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker’s runoff bid in Georgia at a time when Republicans aim to make the race a referendum on President Joe Biden. … But Walker and other Republicans remain stalwart allies of Trump—and determined to energize his ‘Make America Great Again’ base after a midterm campaign that failed to match soaring turnout expectations in Georgia or meet the national projections of a red wave. … Even as Trump launches a new campaign, there’s evidence that Georgia Republicans are less enamored of him. An October Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed 52% of likely Georgia voters disapprove of Trump, including 15% of Republicans and 80% of independents. … Trump’s decision also adds uncertainty for Democrats, who want to frame the race as a contrast between Warnock and Walker rather than a fight over national issues. They hope Warnock’s ‘remain the reverend’ above-the-fray approach pays dividends.”

GOP moneymen snub Trump’s third run: New York Times: “Within hours of Donald J. Trump announcing his third presidential bid on Tuesday, some of his former aides, donors and staunchest allies are shunning his attempt to recapture the White House, an early sign that he may face difficulty winning the support of a Republican Party still reeling from unexpected midterm losses. … ‘The message he delivered last night—which was self-serving, which was chaotic—was the same one that lost the last election cycle and would lose the next,’ said Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. … At an annual gathering of Republican governors in Orlando, donors and lobbyists mingled with governors past, present and future while weighing ways to wrest Mr. Trump from the party’s base. … Three major party donors—Stephen Schwarzman, Ken Griffin and Ronald Lauder—said this week that they intended to back someone other than Mr. Trump or have no plans to support him this time.”

Trende: Candidate quality, not Dobbs, explains midterms: RealClearPolitics: “The Dobbs theory doesn’t jibe with two things we see. First, there were substantial gaps in gubernatorial outcomes, where governors who backed – or even signed – abortion bans ran well ahead of other candidates. Brian Kemp ran well ahead of Herschel Walker. Joe Lombardo ran ahead of Adam Laxalt. Even Kari Lake ran ahead of Blake Masters. Greg Abbott – who signed Texas’ infamous abortion ‘bounty’ law, seemingly paid no price. … Finally, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that overall, Republicans received more votes. … So what does work? … The first is simply that candidates do matter. In the past decade, and especially after Trump’s win in 2016, it has become fashionable among pundits (including myself) to wave away candidate issues. This cycle, though, candidate quality seems to have made a comeback. … In the House there were scores of candidates who lost in swing districts that they probably should have won.”

BRIEFLY

Republicans line up to challenge Ohio’s Sherrod BrownNBC News

GOP Rep. Alex Mooney ‘all in’ against Joe Manchin in 2024—Politico

Rep. Karen Bass emerges victorious in Los Angeles mayoral race—Los Angeles Times

Why GOP’s popular vote win didn’t translate into seats—Washington Post

Dingell and Michigan Dems make move for early primary date as Iowa loses ground—NBC News 

Former Rep. Lee Zeldin prepares challenge to RNC Chairwoman Rona Romney McDanielPolitico

WITHIN EARSHOT: CHECK OUT CHAPTER 11

“I would never read a book. … I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that.”—Cryptocurrency exchange founder and political mega-donor Sam Bankman-Fried in an interview with author Adam Fisher. FTX has since filed for bankruptcy and Bankman-Fried is likely to face a myriad of criminal charges.


MAILBAG

“When voters were asked about what concerned them most, crime, inflation and immigration were all the way up there. But there was another concern it seems the same polls didn’t address: the influence and possible return of Donald Trump. Where would voters have ranked him among the problems facing this country? Pretty high, I’ll bet. If I’m correct about that extra datum, the tiny red ripple makes more sense. What do you think, Chris?”—Harry Broertjes, Hollywood, Florida

You raise a really interesting idea, Mr. Broertjes. Such a poll may exist, but I didn’t see it. Simply asking voters whether Trump was a factor—positive or negative—in their choices this year would have been very instructive. Nate and I will nose around and get back to you!

“What I believe to be accurate is that the polls reflected both the candidate’s quality and the lack of humility you speak to in your article. When all you have to measure is insincerity and crazy, that’s what you get.  Just suppose, for a moment, that A) we had humble representation and B) We had excellent candidates to choose from. With that combination, candidates would understand that they had to lay out their plans more thoroughly. In addition, they would feel compelled to explain what they have done to qualify them to represent us. When you remove the crazy and crackpots from the candidate pool, voters would make choices on issues. … There will always be a fringe candidate. If we had honesty and candidates that lead by example, we could cut through that chaff.”—Mike Kole, Belleville, Michigan

But there’s the rub, Mr. Cole. If we had candidates like the ones you describe, we wouldn’t have most of the complaints Americans’ share about politics. Heck, we wouldn’t need our Constitution. Ours is a system crafted by virtuous people to protect us from the wicked impulses that will always afflict humankind. Now, we’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel for political leaders for a while, but the problem here isn’t so much “candidate quality” as it is a lack of civic virtue among rank-and-file partisans. Politicians tend to go where the votes are, and these days that often means scare-mongering, apocalypticism, and dehumanizing other groups. The politicians are not creating those desires, but rather responding to them. A nation that has lost its capacity for critical thinking and has developed a limitless appetite for emotional blabber will not produce virtuous politicians. As frustrating and corny as this, the truth is that our soul-sick nation needs a moral, spiritual renewal in which we learn that the only antidote to all this hate is a righteous love for our country and its people.

“I have seen a lot of post-election analysis regarding the GOP’s success in New York and Florida, but nothing about Iowa. Here in Iowa, a Republican governor and senator won in a rout. Also, 40 year incumbent Democrats lost attorney general and state treasurer.  This is a state that went twice for Obama and had a democratic state Senate as recently as 2016. It now has near super-majorities in both chambers. With the failure of the Republican wave nationwide, I think the GOP’s success in Iowa may be worth a story.”—Sean Moore, Des Moines, Iowa

Great points, Mr. Moore. And that’s particularly significant given that the 2024 presidential race is already underway in your state. Thanks for the tip! Onion rings on me at Embers.

“Greetings from New Zealand where intelligent political commentary is as rare as teeth on a Kiwi (bird). Always a pleasure to read your insightful reporting on the U.S. political scene and realise what a contrast it is to the politicised pap we get in the Antipodes. Keep up the good work.”—John Denton, Napier, New Zealand

Greetings and many thanks, Mr. Denton! We’ve got plenty of politicized pap here on the other side of the world. I assume it is among one of our leading industries, up there with social media influencing, umbrage taking, and meme development.


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 heedful Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: WHAT’S UPDOG?

Sen. Rick Scott campaigns for Herschel Walker. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/ Getty Images.)

Last week’s cutline contest looks like it should have been easy: Two very unusual people in a totally unnatural situation. But in obviously funny situations, restraint is most needed—a little more Gene Wilder and a little less Mel Brooks. And while many entries got tangled up going for bigger gags, our winner this week, who hails from the garlic capital of the world, knew how to keep it pungent.

Winner:
“Let’s try one more time. You’re Herschel, I’m Rick.”—Robert Goldman, Gilroy, California

Winner, *Record scratch* *Freeze frame* Division:
“And they both thought … ‘What the [bleep] am I doing here?’”—Matt Dunning, Cincinnati, Ohio

Winner, Giving Props Division:
“Nice hat! Wanna see my badge?”—Jack Burnett, Chesnee, South Carolina

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!


EMOJINAL DAMAGES

WREG: A Mid-South fire chief said he was terminated after less than 10 months on the job for inappropriate use of emojis. Allen Hicks, the now former fire chief of Marked Tree, Arkansas, says he was … reacting to a costume meme that uses offensive and profane language to describe him. ‘I was holding a chicken and it had chicken (expletive). That was the exact words it had on there.’… He said he responded to the poster through private messages that were later made public. ‘I just told the boy if he had a problem with me don’t hide behind Snapchat come see me like a grown man, was no threats made against him or nothing else,’ Hicks said. Hicks shared this write-up given to him by Mayor Danny Johnson. It said he violated city policy by making a Facebook post with inappropriate emojis that do not properly reflect the city. ‘They are talking about another Facebook post I made supposed to be giving the bird, but it was supposed to be the thumbs up,’  he said.”

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 and Lily Nelson 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.