Monday 24 October 2016

Election looms, but it's still chaos as usual on Capitol Hill

Charles Krauthammer in Washington

Published 26/09/2015 | 02:30

John Boehner wipes away tears as he introduces Pope Francis.
John Boehner wipes away tears as he introduces Pope Francis.

It's a crazy time in America, where months before the nation votes, both sides seem to have a death wish. And yesterday US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who has repeatedly been challenged by the conservative wing of his Republican Party, told members that he will resign from the House at the end of October.

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An aide to Mr Boehner, who holds the top job in the House, said the Ohio lawmaker will step down from the speakership and his seat in Congress, effective on October 30.

US Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the No 2 Republican in the House, is expected to be the top contender to replace Mr Boehner as speaker, Republican Representative Peter King told reporters.

Mr Boehner becomes the first casualty in this new anti-establishment wave in the Republican Party.

Mr Boehner, a Catholic, wept openly while presiding over Pope Francis's address to Congress on Thursday.

The challenge of managing the day-to-day operations of the House of Representatives while satisfying an increasingly unruly - and growing - faction of hardcore conservative backbenchers has finally brought him down.

There once was a time when a speaker could bend the House of Representatives to his will by offering rewards and meting out punishment for transgressions.

Those days are long gone, as members of Congress now answer to outside constituencies and interests.

But the Democrats are also going through their own travails:

• They are running a presidential campaign decrying wage stagnation, income inequality and widespread economic malaise - as if they've not been in office for the past seven years.

• Hillary Clinton, their leading presidential candidate, is 27 points underwater on the question of honesty and is under FBI investigation for possible mishandling of classified information.

• Her chief challenger is a 74-year-old socialist with a near-spotless record of invisibility in 25 years in Congress. The other three candidates can hardly be found at all.

• The only plausible alternative challenger, Joe Biden, has run and failed twice and, before tragedy struck (to which he has responded, one must say, with admirable restraint and courage), was for years a running national joke for his endless gaucheries and verbal pratfalls.

For the GOP, this has all been a godsend, an opportunity to amplify the case being made every day by the Democrats themselves against their own stewardship. Instead, the Republicans spent the summer attacking each other - the festival of ad hominems interrupted only by spectacular attempts to alienate major parts of the citizenry.

The latest example is Ben Carson, the mild-mannered, highly personable neurosurgeon and one of two highest-polling GOP candidates. He said on Sunday that a Muslim should not be president of the United States.

His reason is that Islam is incompatible with the US Constitution. On the contrary. Mr Carson is incompatible with a constitution that explicitly commands that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States".

Ever. And it is no defence of Mr Carson to say that he was not calling for legal disqualification of Muslims, just advocating that one should not vote for them. But that defence misses the point: The constitution is not just a legal document. It is a didactic one. It doesn't just set limits to power; it expresses a national ethos. It doesn't just tell you what you're not allowed to do; it also suggests what you shouldn't want to do. The First Amendment allows you to express whatever opinion you want - even, say, advocating the suppression of free speech in others. But a major purpose of the constitution is to discourage and delegitimise such authoritarian thinking.

Mr Carson later backtracked, saying that he meant opposing someone not because of his identity, ethnicity nor faith but because of his ideology - meaning that he wouldn't want in the White House an Islamist who seeks to impose Shariah law.

Neither would I. Unfortunately, that's not what Mr Carson said. In the original interview, he said: "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation." It would not have been hard to attach any of the appropriate restrictive adjectives - radical, extreme, Islamist - to the word "Muslim". He didn't.

Indeed, Mr Carson gave the correct answer minutes later when he said he wouldn't apply his presidential religious test to congressional candidates. In that case, "it depends on who that Muslim is and what their policies are". Which is, of course, the right answer, the American answer, the only possible answer to the same question about a candidate for the presidency.

Mr Carson is not one to cynically pander. Nor do I doubt that his statement about a Muslim president was sincerely felt. But it remains morally outrageous. And, in a general election, politically poisonous. It is certainly damaging to any party when one of its two front-runners denigrates, however thoughtlessly, the nation's entire Muslim American community.

Particularly when it follows the yeoman work done by the other leading GOP candidate to alienate other large chunks of the citizenry. Three minutes into his campaign, Donald Trump called Mexican-American immigrants rapists who come bringing drugs and crime. He followed that by advocating the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants. And sealed the deal by chastising Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish in answer to a question posed in Spanish.

Mr Trump's contretemps with women enjoy even more renown - his attacks on Megyn Kelly (including a retweet calling her a bimbo) and his insulting Carly Fiorina for her looks.

It's a crazy time. One party is knowingly lurching toward disaster, marching inexorably to the coronation of a weak and deeply wounded presidential candidate. Meanwhile, the other party is flamboyantly shooting at itself and gratuitously alienating one significant electoral constituency after another.

And it's only September. Of 2015.

(© Daily Telegraph London)

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