Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy warned his crackpot caucus in advance on Tuesday: He would not be tearing up President Biden’s State of the Union speech, as Nancy Pelosi famously (and fittingly) did one of Donald Trump’s. He also reminded them that microphones and photographers in the gallery could pick up embarrassing conversations and images. He was trying to coax a modicum of decorum out of the motley crew of gun-toters, insurrectionists, and idiots who made him speaker (after 15 votes).
He failed. Jackals gonna jackal. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, dressed surreally in white fur, looked like she was wearing the skin of a polar bear she killed herself (others said Cruella de Vil). Scowling, frothing, she repeatedly stood up and called Biden a “liar.” When Biden lamented the 70,000 Americans who die every year of fentanyl overdoses, Tennessee wing nut Andy Ogles cawed, “It’s your fault!” Early on, fraudster freshman Representative George Santos got called an “ass” by GOP Senator Mitt Romney. Gun-toting Lauren Boebert, fresh off wishing death on Biden at a church (“May his days be few,” from Psalm 109), couldn’t stop scowling and mouthing insults. I expected one of them to start flinging their own poop. Thank God for small mercies.
McCarthy himself enabled the chaos, by spending the first half of Biden’s speech looking like he took an extra gummy after dinner, or maybe shared too much merlot with former speaker John Boehner (to be fair, Boehner never looked so hammered). The speaker was smiley and animated when Biden began by graciously congratulating him on achieving his lifelong goal. Once Biden moved into the policy portion of the speech, McCarthy grew heavy-lidded, looking like he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
Maybe he was only resting his eyes, as children say. Also his legs: McCarthy didn’t stand up for Biden’s citing the past year of record job creation, or the recovery of democracy after the 2021 insurrection. He even sat through the president’s recitation of bipartisan achievements, though he got up belatedly to applaud help for military victims of toxic burn pits. He did find the energy to shake his head against raising taxes on corporate stock buybacks. It seemed like the erstwhile speaker was trying to calibrate the right combination of respect and disdain for Biden in order to appease his hostile caucus.
It didn’t work. If you ever had a substitute teacher fall asleep at her desk—and I did—you know the classroom falls apart and the bullies take control. Republicans—sometimes just the assholes, but sometimes the majority—began heckling and booing Biden, but the braying hyenas only made him stronger. It started when they yelled objections to the truthful assertion that Donald Trump, alone, contributed fully 25 percent of the entire deficit incurred by the federal government in US history. “No president added more to the national debt than my predecessor,” he told them. They loudly disagreed; fact-checkers on Twitter quickly ruled Biden right.
The same thing happened when Biden made another truthful statement: that “some Republicans,” and he even added “not a majority,” have proposed cutting or “sunsetting” Social Security and Medicare. Of course Republican Senate Campaign Committee head Rick Scott did just that, as did his pal Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson. Biden had receipts, and he knew it. As they continued to howl their objections to his factual claims, he decided to take them at their word. “I enjoy conversion,” he said, smiling broadly. “As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books [for cuts] now, right?”
By the time McCarthy realized Biden was using jujitsu to best the trolls, and began shushing them and shaking his head and mouthing “no,” it was way too late. The 80-year-old president had bested the 58-year-old House speaker. Or maybe we should call him SINO: Speaker In Name Only.
We saw a similar dynamic when the Republican selected to give the SOTU rebuttal tried to play the age card on Biden. “At 40 I’m the youngest governor in the country; at 80 he’s the oldest president in our country’s history,” boasted newly inaugurated Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It’s a shame these rebuttals are routinely written before the president’s speeches; Sanders’s boast seemed irrelevant after witnessing Biden owning Congress members half his age.
These SOTU rebuttals are almost always bad, but Sanders made her failed GOP predecessors like Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio look like Barack Obama. She opened with somewhat moving stories about battling thyroid cancer recently, and her mother battling spinal cancer at age 20. I thought she’d segue into attacking Biden’s justified attacks on pharmaceutical and health insurance companies’ price-gouging, but she didn’t. “Faith propels us to charge boldly ahead,” she strangely concluded.
Similarly, I thought an overlong riff about accompanying “the former president”—she never mentioned Trump’s name—to Iraq in 2019 would segue into an attack on Biden’s righteous but logistically bumpy withdrawal from Afghanistan, which journalists reported she would highlight earlier on Tuesday. But no, the story was entirely self-aggrandizing. I need to quote it at length because it was so absurd.
“One of the young soldiers yelled from the back, ‘Mr. President, I reenlisted in the military because of you.’ The President said, ‘and son, I am here because of you.’
“Shortly after, that young soldier came up to me and said, ‘Sarah, you have a tough job.’ I told him ‘What I do is nothing. You take bombs and bullets. That’s a tough job.’
“And in a moment that I know I’ll cherish for the rest of my life, that soldier reached up, and pulled the Brave Rifles Patch he wore on his shoulder and placed it into my hand, a sign of ultimate respect, and said, ‘Sarah, we are in this together.’”
Sarah, you worked for a commander in chief who famously called the men and women who die in combat “suckers” and “losers.” Again, as comedian Michelle Wolf said to pearl-clutching at the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner, “she burns facts to create a perfect smoky eye” (though in this case it was harsh black eyeliner). Her attacks on Biden and Democrats were similarly unhinged: “We are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight. Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols…” She framed the conflict as not right vs. left but “normal vs. crazy.”
That part is true. Except she needed to witness the maniacs braying at Biden earlier in the evening, and look in the mirror last night, to see who’s really crazy. The American people did.
I can’t wait for the fallout from Tuesday night. Does McCarthy pay for his attempts to shush his crazies? Is Marjorie Taylor Greene speaker now? On the Democratic side, maybe this will shush those who say Biden’s too old and shouldn’t run again. He beat the new House GOP majority last night just like he beat Trump in 2020, and would again, if he chooses to run, in 2024. I’m hoping to watch that rematch.