The Power Game

In the quasi-political drama House of Cards Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, laments, “Power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value” (1). Arguably, the most powerful position in Congress is the Speaker of the House and the man closest to attaining that status this week was Representative and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA 23rd District). The same day Speaker Boehner announced his resignation McCarthy was immediately referred to by the media as the most likely candidate (2).

The increasing opposition against Boehner helped inform his decision to resign. Division from fellow conservatives concerning another government shutdown and denying the Tea Party’s request to defund Planned Parenthood made further factions in House leadership. The immediate rise of McCarthy seemed like the most likely choice to the media. However, less than a week later, McCarthy surprisingly relinquished the nomination, despite being able to secure 218 votes, in order to promote peace in his currently divided party. His withdrawal from the nomination has been narrated by the media in sensationalist discourse all week.

During the Speaker of the House replacement process media have provided a variety of chaotic, sympathetic, and surprising critiques of a seemingly divided Republican Party. The central theme of two articles addressing McCarthy’s drop from the speaker race try to answer the question someone like the Napoleonic Frank Underwood would ask, if power is a part of the culture of politics then why would McCarthy withdraw his name from consideration to “unite his party”? Two articles address this question, but in very different ways.

In the MSNBC article “GOP Leader Shocks Colleagues” Steven Benen narrates McCarthy’s drop from the race through a partisan perspective. The beginning of Benen’s article references McCarthy’s recent comments about the Select Committee on Benghazi which McCarthy said had successfully decreased Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers (3). He then uses McCarthy’s comments to prove the “radicalization of Republican politics,” which contribute to legislative stagnation and, like McCarthy’s remarks on the conservative politicization of Benghazi, further polarize the party. According to Benen, the situation with Boehner, McCarthy, and the Republican division is just another example of their ineffective leadership.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal Patrick O’Connor’s “Why Kevin McCarthy Came to Quit Speaker Race” writes of Rep. McCarthy’s decision to withdraw his name for consideration as more systematic, democratic, and responsible. Rep. McCarthy is presented as reasonable in the face of doubt compared to his competitive colleagues in Congress. Instead of referring to McCarthy as less qualified or unpopular in the variety of current conservative opinion on Capitol Hill, he is noble in the face of uncertain opposition. McCarthy is written as a peacemaker, a bubbly symbol of humility in the wake of Speaker John Boehner’s sudden resignation.

O’Connor also describes the conservative opposition as inconvenient to the majority’s ultimate stabilization. For example, he mentions events leading up to McCarthy’s withdrawal from consideration as a structured, polite recognition of the illegitimate power of his opposition. One example O’Connor mentions is that conservative groups organized phone calls against McCarthy, which described him as “Boehner-lite” or “Mc Boehner” and printed tee shirts with a political cartoon of Rep. McCarthy drinking red wine and smoking a cigarette imitating Boehner’s (and let’s not forget Frank Underwood’s) well known habit. O’Connor permits the “tactics” of the more conservative wing as taking their toll on McCarthy, who unlike his conservative opponents, feels a brotherly “connection with fellow Republicans.” McCarthy is not an example of a chaotic party he is instead the poster boy of structure.

O’Connor includes a quote from McCarthy, “for the good of the conference, “I didn’t want another speaker’s race to give people primaries.” Further illustrating, that unlike the unorganized, diverse perspectives infiltrating the House and current Presidential race, he respects changing party dynamics. It is no surprise O’Connor includes McCarthy’s further noble sacrifice by pledging support to his one time rival Rep. Paul Ryan (R- WI 1st District), “I think he could unite everybody” and “I don’t know. A fresh face would have a better chance at bringing people together.” McCarthy in the article draws a line in the sand and is one step ahead to ensure Republicans are connected in their relative power.

One similarity in both of the articles assessing McCarthy’s withdrawal is the next front-runner for Speaker remains unclear. I am sure in a few days we will hear more about Rep. Paul Ryan, but in light of Benen’s claim of chaotic Republican inconsistency and O’Connor’s heroic interest story, strong political differences in Republican leadership remain a divisive issue. By systematically linking McCarthy’s withdrawal from Speaker nomination Benen equates him with a crumbling party and mentions, ironically much like McCarthy and Boehner’s ultra-conservative opponents, “even if he prevailed, McCarthy would have immediately taken the gavel and become an even weaker Speaker than Boehner.”

The contrast in Benen and O’Connor’s article prove power is in the hands of those who can exert the most wisdom in times of uncertainty. Interestingly, Kevin Spacey shadowed Representative McCarthy when preparing for his role as Congressman Frank Underwood in House of Cards. (4). In a recent comment to People Magazine McCarthy confided that Spacey stole his political wisdom, “you vote your district, you vote your conscience, you just don’t surprise me.” Well Mr. McCarthy, your pursuit of the speakership may have been thwarted, but you played your hand and the majority still stands in uncertainty.

The Power Game

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