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Larry Donnelly: A poor GOP debate, questions about Biden and a dysfunctional Congress

IT IS DIFFICULT not to have a degree of sympathy for the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy. The Californian, whose great-grandfather was an Irish emigrant, is desperately seeking to stave off a partial government shutdown occasioned by a failure of Congress to appropriate dollars to federal agencies.

Speaker McCarthy and other astute Republicans know that swing voters would probably blame a shutdown on their party – and that could precipitate the loss of their narrow majority in the House in 2024.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, under fire as of late in the wake of a video in which the 81-year-old appears to falter, is cognisant of how a government shutdown would cut politically and worked with his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, to pass a bi-partisan deal that would maintain spending levels temporarily and keep operations afloat. McConnell was informed subsequently by McCarthy that this Senate bill would not even get an airing in the House.

senate-minority-leader-mitch-mcconnell-r-ky-speaks-alongside-other-senate-republican-leaders-during-a-press-conference-at-the-u-s-capitol-sept-27-2023-francis-chungpolitico-via-ap-images Alamy Stock Photo Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared to falter during a recent perss conference. Alamy Stock Photo

This is primarily because of the posturing of extremists the Speaker must be responsive to, with Donald Trump urging them on from Mar-a-Lago. US Reps Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia are two. The former has detailed a series of demands for permanent spending cuts and isn’t remotely fussed by the prospect of a government shutdown; the latter has made slashing aid to Ukraine a prerequisite to her support for a measure to avert a shutdown. She alleges this assistance is “blood money.”

McCarthy could seek to forge a coalition with pragmatic Republicans and some centrists on the opposite side of the aisle. Whether enough Democrats would come on board is an open question, though. Additionally, if he moves in this direction, he would, in Gaetz’s words, face a motion “every single day” to oust him as Speaker.

McCarthy has no palatable options. Barring something akin to a miracle, the government will partially shut down from this weekend. Millions of workers will be furloughed and many vital services and benefit payments will cease. US Rep Ralph Norman of South Carolina estimates the chances of a shutdown at 99.9%. How long it might last is anyone’s guess.

The Biden question

Meanwhile, despite reasonable claims from experts like Larry Sabato and Nate Cohn that a recent ABC/Washington Post poll showing President Joe Biden trailing Donald Trump by ten percentage points is an outlier, White House strategists and prominent Democrats have to be worried about the all but certain nominee’s position.

Yesterday, Biden launched a scathing attack on “extremist” Trump, accusing him of plotting to subvert the US Constitution if he wins a return to power next year.

As well as the justifiably disparaged ABC survey, an NBC News poll indicates that 74% of all voters (including more than half of self-identified Democrats questioned) are concerned that Biden lacks the mental and physical stamina to serve a second four-year term. This must be particularly distressing for Team Biden because that figure outstrips the 62% of the electorate who have concerns regarding Trump’s looming criminal trials.

It comes as Axios reports that the 80-year-old “has been wearing tennis shoes more often to avoid slipping” and “using the short stairs on Air Force One” to keep from tripping.

Notwithstanding the increasingly widespread fears and audible murmuring all of this is prompting, President Biden seems wholly undaunted and unwilling to reverse his decision to pursue re-election. 

philadelphia-pa-usa-july-20-2023-president-joe-biden-speaks-at-the-philly-shipyard Alamy Stock Photo PHILADELPHIA, PA, USA - JULY 20, 2023: President Joe Biden speaks at the Philly Shipyard. - Image ID: 2RG09WX Alamy Stock Photo

He rightly points to the reality that he has already beaten Trump once and that his administration has had plenty of genuine successes that have improved the lives of Americans. A further factor – in my view, at least – is that Joe Biden is a man who, both historically and currently underestimated by his critics, is obsessed with proving them wrong.


Against this backdrop, seven Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in the Ronald Reagan Library in California on Wednesday night for their second debate. Owing to a terrible bout of jetlag after a weekend trip to Boston, I caught most of it in the wee hours. It would be euphemistic to describe it as unedifying.

The aspirants repeatedly spoke over one another so that no one could be heard. They routinely declined to answer questions posed by the moderators and instead reverted to talking points on separate issues or launched stinging attacks on their rivals. It was brutal to watch. Trump was smart to skip it.

commentator-sean-hannity-left-talks-to-california-gov-gavin-newsom-in-the-spin-room-after-a-republican-presidential-primary-debate-hosted-by-fox-business-network-and-univision-wednesday-sept-27 Alamy Stock Photo Commentator Sean Hannity, left, talks to California Gov. Gavin Newsom in the spin room after a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX Business Network and Univision, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Alamy Stock Photo

The insurgent 38-year-old billionaire entrepreneur, Vivek Ramaswamy, made a number of easily refutable, nonsensical contributions and demonstrated that he is nowhere near prepared to serve as commander-in-chief. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis needed a big performance but was again quite weak. He is in serious trouble.

Ex-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who referred to the absent frontrunner as “Donald Duck” in a well-rehearsed spiel, definitely had the line of the night, yet still has next to no chance.

If there was a victor on the stage, it was the former South Carolina Governor and US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Her messaging and tone, however, were considerably closer to the persona of the man in whose building she and the rest were setting out their stalls than to Trump’s, whom she is languishing far behind.

former-new-jersey-gov-chris-christie-left-smiles-next-to-former-u-n-ambassador-nikki-haley-during-a-break-in-a-republican-presidential-primary-debate-hosted-by-fox-business-network-and-univision Alamy Stock Photo Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, smiles next to former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley during a break in a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX Business Network and Univision, Wednesday. Alamy Stock Photo

She is broadly at odds with the beliefs and mood of the grassroots and the “turn back the clock” brand of populist conservatism which Trump espouses and they favour.

In sum, where is the American polity at the moment?

The US Congress is captive to the whims of a tiny, manifestly unhinged rump of its membership. A debate among Republican candidates for the highest office in the land was so objectively pitiful that the clear winner was someone who didn’t bother to attend. And what our civic religion continues to teach is “the world’s greatest democracy” looks to be headed for a Biden-Trump rematch, when the vast bulk of the citizenry wishes both would go off into the sunset.

Being polite, it’s a very sad state of affairs. Being truthful, it’s a total sh*t show.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with