McCarthy Shows His Weakness With George Santos

[ Posted Tuesday, January 31st, 2023 – 16:54 UTC ]

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is in a bind, quite obviously. He's got one member of his caucus who is not just politically toxic but politically radioactive. George Santos is currently being hounded by packs of reporters -- which is not exactly normal for a freshman congressman -- because there are just so many questions that remain unanswered about all his various lies and fabrications. Some of which may wind Santos up in some legal trouble, so he's keeping mum for the most part. And it doesn't seem like a day goes by without some further revelations of his pathological lying, which means those reporters aren't going to get bored with the story any time soon.

If these were more normal times, a party leader would either take Santos aside and tell him to do the right thing and resign, or if that didn't work Santos would be very publically drummed out of the party ranks and sent into political exile. This would mean no committee assignments and no political support whatsoever, verbally or financially. McCarthy, however, can't afford to do the right thing -- or, at least, he obviously thinks he can't afford to, from his words and actions to date. So instead, McCarthy was forced to reward Santos's vote for him for speaker by putting Santos on two relatively backwater committees. McCarthy has the thinnest of majorities and, when his full caucus is present, he can only afford to lose four votes on any issue. Currently, this is down to three votes, because one Republican House member recently fell off a ladder while doing yardwork and seriously injured himself (and McCarthy ended "proxy voting" so House members have to be present to vote once again). McCarthy's margin is so small he can't afford to lose anyone else.

McCarthy and Santos have a few options, but none of them are particularly good for the Republican majority. A strong and principled leader -- which McCarthy definitely is not -- would have taken Santos out to the proverbial woodshed and come back with a signed resignation letter from him. This would be immediately announced, and the problem would be over.

House vacancies are filled by special election instead of being appointed by the state's governor. So in a few months (state laws vary, I have admittedly not checked New York's, so I am not certain of the exact time frame), a new election would be held to fill the seat. Until then, McCarthy would be down a vote and the seat would be vacant.

Santos said in an interview, after a whole lot of damning evidence of his lies came to light, that the only people who really got a voice in the decision of whether he should serve are his own constituents in his district. Newsday/Siena College just ran a poll in his district, and found that 78 percent of the voters think Santos should resign. Only 13 percent said he shouldn't resign (the others had no opinion). Republican constituents of Santos called for his resignation by a margin of 71-18 percent. That's a pretty clear indication, but all Santos did when the poll came out was to announce he was voluntarily taking himself off the two committees. So unless McCarthy leans on him a whole lot harder, he's just not going to resign.

The same poll showed that if a new election were held now, the Democrat who lost to Santos, Robert Zimmerman, would win by 21 points. Even if Santos didn't run for the seat again, the district already leans blue so there's a strong likelihood that a Democrat (Zimmerman, most likely) would take the seat. Which McCarthy is fully aware of.

McCarthy is forced to take the short view rather than the long. If Santos was forced to resign and the seat went to the Democrats, at least Republicans might have a shot at winning it back in 2024. If Santos stays in office it is an absolute guarantee that the Democrats will pick up the seat in 2024. If Santos runs for re-election, he'll get buried in a landslide of epic proportions. If he doesn't, the voters will be so soured on the Republican Party for allowing Santos to stay that they'll almost certainly vote Democratic in disgust.

The whole Santos fiasco has also already taken a great deal of the wind out of McCarthy's sanctimoniousness towards Democrats as well. McCarthy refused to seat Adam Schiff on the committee he used to chair because, as McCarthy accuses, "Schiff lied to the American people." Which is a charge that is a lot easier to make when reporters don't immediately scream out: "What about George Santos? He told a pack of lies to get elected! And you let him sit on committees!"

Santos has no real incentive to leave, at this point. He knows this is his political Warholian "15 minutes of fame," and he seems like he's ready to make the most of it. He's been handing out doughnuts and other baked goods to the reporters who are camped around his office door, with a smile on his face. He has to know that he's never going to get elected dogcatcher pretty much anywhere for the rest of his life, never mind hopes of getting re-elected to his current House seat. He knows that his second act on the American stage (if one even occurs) will be on rightwing media somewhere -- and it's an open question if any of them will have him (he's not exactly a fire-breathing MAGA type and it's hard to see what value would be added to any show by having Santos on it, really). Or a book tour, perhaps. But as of January 2025, he's done in politics. So I supposed it is understandable for such an obvious narcissist to just figure: "I'll just make the most of it while it lasts!"

Serial liars and even pathological liars have indeed done well in politics, at times. But the breadth of Santos's delusional statements is truly in a class of its own. He has been compared to "the talented Mr. Ripley," but a more apt comparison might be Baron Munchausen. Santos has told such whoppers about his past (and present) that are so very easily disproven, it might indicate perhaps that he wants to get caught in all these lies. I'm no psychologist, I don't really know, but Santos's lies seem of a different flavor than the tens of thousands of lies told by Donald Trump (for instance). But whatever fantastical storyline that plays on the movie in his own head, reality is fast catching up to George Santos.

Kevin McCarthy can see all of this coming. He knows that the chances that Santos has actually broken campaign finance laws (the most obvious of any legal price he may wind up paying) are actually pretty high. He knows Santos is a liability -- a ticking political time bomb. But McCarthy's hold on power is so tenuous that he cannot do the right thing and distance the House Republicans from this trainwreck of a politician. He has to give at least tacit support to Santos because he needs his vote so very badly. The whole thing just exposes not only McCarthy's weakness but his abject powerlessness over his entire caucus. If Santos isn't disciplined, then all the other members know that doing anything up to and including what Santos has done will still get them a free pass from McCarthy. McCarthy cannot crack a whip he doesn't possess. Everyone can count the number of votes McCarthy needs to get anything done, and everyone knows that if Santos is that important to this vote-count then they'll be able to get away with pretty much anything without fear of retribution from their own leadership team. So while the whole George Santos scandal is extremely embarrassing for McCarthy, what comes next might be worse. Not being able to threaten your own membership in any meaningful way means there will be no punishments for anything anyone does. That hasn't fully sunk in yet, but it will. Give it time.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


One Comment on “McCarthy Shows His Weakness With George Santos”

  1. [1] 
    Speak2 wrote:

    The question I keep asking is "how incompetent was Zimmerman?"

    Some of the lies were known. How did a candidate for the House totally miss these threads? Political malpractice would be a mild epithet.

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