A likely apocryphal tale about Sir Robert Peel, a British prime minister during the 19th century, goes like this: During Peel’s rise in Parliament, he refused to lie to the opposition party during negotiations deemed important at the time. To quell the rage of his own party members for telling the truth, he told them: “Now you know I won’t lie for you. But because of that, you also know I won’t lie to you.”
His party members saw the truth of this, and its usefulness, and his honesty facilitated his rise. The dubious historicity of this story doesn’t diminish its power.
This fable ricocheted around my mind as the world watched Kevin McCarthy’s fall last week. While there are many reasons for McCarthy’s ouster, the most proximate is that neither the unruly rump of his own party, nor even the most moderate Democrats trusted him, and would rather roll the dice with an unknown future.
To be sure, there are numerous other factors that led to McCarthy’s ouster. The narrowness of the Republican majority, the unseriousness of most of McCarthy’s antagonists on the right, and the seemingly boundless tit-for-tat games that seem to rule our politics right now.
But sober right-wing commentators, and some on the left, have criticized the moderate Democrats for not bailing McCarthy out and voting to keep him speaker. It’s an understandable critique. Why would ostensibly serious legislators vote with the handful of gadflies?
Aaron Fritschner, a top staffer for Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., took issue with this critique, laying out on social media a long, detailed case for Democrats’ actions, saying they did not act “out of schadenfreude or pique with no thought to the legislative outlook.” Fritschner argues that during the recent spending fight, which ultimately led to McCarthy’s ouster, McCarthy would not even give the Democrats 90 minutes to read a 71-page bill they’d never seen, after spending years saying that bills should be available at least three days before any votes. And yet after supporting the bill anyway, McCarthy claimed Democrats wanted to shut down the government.
As the fight went on, Fritschner pointed out McCarthy was making promises, to his own people, that would contradict pledges that he was purportedly making to Democrats. He wrote, “A speakership founded upon Democrats’ trust that McCarthy will lie to his own guys and not to us is not rational, folks!”
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., concurred, saying, “Even until the bitter end ... he said that he wasn’t going to ask for Democratic votes,” and McCarthy “just didn’t have the credibility to show that he put the institution first.”
Beyer and Aguilar are partisan Democrats, and there are respectable counterarguments to some of their claims. But their critique’s overall point, that McCarthy was trying to have it both ways with mutually exclusive pledges to different sets of members, is hard to avoid. Indeed, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., arguably the most thoughtful Republican rebel, mirrored their complaints, saying, “What brought Kevin McCarthy down is he made a number of promises to a number of different groups, and when the time came, he could not deliver on these promises.”
People forget that, before the 15 ballots it took to make McCarthy speaker earlier this year, he previously failed to earn the speakership in 2015 after then-Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, resigned rather than face a vote similar to the one McCarthy lost. This was partly because of political mistakes on McCarthy’s part, but partly because members simply didn’t trust him, even then. As a congressional staffer at the time, I remember hearing remarks to that effect, as well as discussion about an alleged affair. Whether or not those widely reported rumors were true, I can tell you firsthand, a lot of members believed they were. They turned to then-Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis. — who didn’t even want the job — because they trusted him more.
I don’t mean to call out McCarthy, per se, for particularly high levels of untrustworthiness. Around the same time McCarthy was failing for the first time to get the speakership, then-President Barack Obama wanted to pass a compromise to fully legalize “Dreamers,” immigrants brought here illegally as children, in exchange for increased border security and limits on asylum. But this compromise was hampered by the fact that Obama repeatedly said, correctly in my view, that he lacked the legal authority to do anything to fix this problem without legislation, and then tried a workaround anyway, betting the courts couldn’t stop him. Republicans were incensed. They believed any deal they could cut for increased border security would be undermined by similar trickery.
Thus, the legislation went nowhere although there was a clear majority that favored the basic policy. Was this a convenient excuse for Republicans who didn’t want to get along with Obama? Maybe. But it made it awfully easy and cost-free. There’s tons of reasons to believe Obama would have gotten his bill, and McCarthy would still be speaker, if they’d focused on the long-term consequences of their actions.
Clichés like “all politicians lie” and “You can tell if a politician is lying if his lips are moving” obscure the fact that politics is built on trust. The politician that earns the most trust, with his constituents, with his colleagues, with the American people, has a much greater chance to change America.
Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, D-Wash., was in politics for 45 years and was widely regarded as a trustworthy and honest legislator. Most well-known for his hawkish foreign policy views, he ironically found himself in the minority for the first time in decades after the 1980 Reagan landslide. This occurred just as he was about to chair the Armed Services Committee, a job he’d wanted most of his career. Yet according to his biographer, Robert Kaufman, even in the minority, Scoop “retained a sizable reservoir of good will and significant influence,” partly because his views were congruent with the Reagan administration, but also in part because of the “scrupulousness with which he had treated Republicans on his committees while they were in the minority.”
Scoop’s views were triumphant, in large part, because his colleagues in the opposing party trusted him. His formal power may have been minimized, but his real power remained.
The violent insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, was unique in American history. But it was hardly the first time where one party tried to overturn a lost election. In the late 1800s, there was a rash of close elections in Congress where the majority party would create a phony election challenge to any minority member who won, and replace them with the majority party candidate that narrowly lost. This happened 62 times from 1874-1904.
Then, Rep. John F. Shafroth, D-Colo., became aware of the fact that there had been significant fraud in 29 precincts that had been key to his majority. He asked that the House unseat him, and seat his opponent, which it did. But this was not the end of his career. “Honest John,” as he came to be called, was rewarded for his action, and was later elected both governor and senator from Colorado.
What Shafroth’s story shows is that bad trends can be reversed. While there have been isolated instances of the kind of behavior that we saw from 1874 to 1904 in the years since, it has been rare. A new precedent had been set. Shafroth’s example mattered.
Citing historical examples of exceptionally honest politicians may seem quaint, and most politicians have never had the kind of virtue as men like Jackson or Shafroth. But given a sufficient time horizon, earning trust pays more dividends than disingenuous shortcuts. Everything lasting is built on it.
I hope the next speaker remembers this.
Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues.