Chairman's Desk

Nothing grand about Grand Old Party’s Speaker standoff

My granny, who was the wisest person I knew, always said that if you lived long enough anything can happen. And happen it did this week when the United States House of Representatives finally elected a new Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson. But only after the country endured three weeks of rudderless political chaos.

The contrast could not have been more stark. Just when President Joe Biden, sitting at the precipice of history, delivered a rare prime time address from the Oval Office outlining a plan to support allies in Ukraine and Israel, Republicans in congress were busy holding a circular firing squad, forcing the chamber into paralysis. If anyone thinks the new Speaker’s coronation will end the political theatre, they’re sorely mistaken.

Once again, the vindictiveness of Trumpians within the GOP has been laid plain. And, let there be no doubt, the infighting and witch-hunts orchestrated by the former president will only continue as the race for the Republican nomination in 2024 heats up.

What’s more, while Johnson was quick to promise aggressive and urgent action to get the legislative branch moving, it may all be for naught as he faces the daunting task of avoiding a government shutdown in November.

Canadians have become accustomed to these antics south of the border. But this time was something else. This was not just another embarrassing machination. It caused very real concern to those who rely on America’s strength to defend them. And more troublingly — it surely delighted Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea.

While those autocracies fail time and again to inspire each other in unity, America, at its best, can inspire other democracies in unity. But it exists as that beacon for the free world only when it acts like it.

Right now, as the world looks to the U.S. for exactly that, it gets partisan squabbling, name-calling, and gridlock — with the potential for more to come.

Such dysfunction isn’t just disheartening — history shows it’s dangerous. The political disagreements and disunity that bogged Britain and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain down in the buildup to the Second World War proved to be catastrophic for stemming Nazi Germany’s aggressive incursions into Eastern Europe. And those internal quarrels were far more civilized than those we are seeing today in the U.S.

America not only has to lead its allies in this time of global uncertainty, it also has to work urgently to protect the deep exposure it has in both the Middle East and Ukraine. These duties appeared to count for nothing when compared to personal political ambitions of those who jostled to replace Kevin McCarthy.

As Johnson takes the gavel, he must, of course, work first to avoid a shutdown, which would paralyze their whole political system. But that is literally the first step. More existentially, he must lead the Republican political class in a serious self-examination of its most recent embarrassing and irresponsible episode. Good luck.

The American ideal is built on prioritizing national interest over partisanship. And, more importantly for its allies around the world, an understanding that America’s edge over its adversaries is its potential to unite disparate nations under shared values and mutual interests. But that is only realized if the world sees America’s democracy as functioning and capable.

Once the party of Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the Union and signed the Emancipation Proclamation; Theodore Roosevelt, who championed progressivism and asserted America’s global role; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who delicately balanced strength with diplomacy during the Cold War; the GOP seems to have irreparably lost its way.

What happens next in American politics may well come to define the future of the global competition between democracy and autocracy. Trump, under whose presidency the U.S. brokered unprecedented diplomatic accords in the Middle East, knows this but continues his harmful puppeteering regardless. As Biden looks to lead through the tumult, his opponent will clearly try anything to scupper him, rather than do what is right. It might be the greatest test for American democracy, and its ability to inspire unity across the free world, we have seen in a generation.

This article first appeared in The Toronto Star on October 29, 2023.

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