Emil Guillermo: McCarthy's Bakersfield Ugly politics and the 118th Congress

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In this age of ugly politics, we must start this piece with a sense of hope.

It’s good news that Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin–who actually died of cardiac arrest on a football field last week but was revived by defibrillation–is now walking and talking on his road to recovery.

As for American democracy, it’s still an open question if it can survive the first week of the 118th Congress.

And that’s why we must remember the coincidence of the Damar Hamlin story. It’s our reminder that the American public can be extremely empathetic, caring and united. Not divided.

We are all on the same team.

Until we talk politics.

And then the ugliness comes through, as we saw with Republicans last week.

If, as the saying goes, politics is show biz for ugly people, we saw ugly play out when Congressman Mike Rogers–Christian, conservative, Alabamian, and the man likely to be the Republican chairman of the Armed Service Committee–had to be restrained before applying some form of armed services on Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz.

It was Gaetz’s vote against Kevin McCarthy on the 14th ballot that extended the embarrassment for the GOP.

But Rep. McCarthy is a son of Bakersfield, Calif., a town known for its dusty hot weather and some of the worst air pollution in the country. Early Saturday morning on the House floor in DC, McCarthy won the speakership of the House just like his home town.

Bakersfield Ugly.

It took 15 ballots, a near brawl, and six members taking no stand, simply voting present. This was the best the new House majority could muster.

When your doctor needs 15 tries to do a simple routine procedure, you don’t praise him for his incompetence. You question his right to practice.

And then when he tells you that he does everything that way, you SMH and get concerned.

With McCarthy and the GOP, the subject is democracy. That’s practically a sacred right we Americans must hold dear. It requires serious, mature, and respectful people who should be acting in a deliberate and high-minded way, for the good of the people and the entire republic.

It’s not the moment for petty squabbles and horse-trading on the rules of power. Democracy is about public service, not self-service.

But that’s what we’re left with after those four days last week. Democrats sat powerless in the minority as we all watched the Republican majority stumble at the gate and reveal its true nature.

And it’s a good thing the speaker vote wasn’t extended until Monday, because the coincidence of Brazil’s Jan. 6 would have been too much for an ironic split screen. Brazil’s insurrection with more than 1,200 arrested, as the Republican election deniers, the presentable insurrectionists in the U.S., try to figure out how to govern in their own ugly way.

America should be the model democracy for the world. We’re all in trouble when we’re not.

So it was a kind of blessing to have the rules vote on Monday.

It wasn’t as ugly on the outside like the speaker vote, which really just laid out the math of this new congress.

There are 222 Republicans in the majority and 212 Democrats. Republicans can only afford to lose 4 votes to make things happen; hence, 218 is their magic number.

But 5 or more detractors is the death block, as it was for McCarthy, until they get enough “present” votes to lower the required vote threshold.

When Republicans get that, they can do anything they want, anytime, including making rules that are against Americans’ self-interest.

Is it in your self-interest to allow for the default of the U.S. government? A new rule gets rid of a “safety net,” the automatic lifting of the debt ceiling to allow the country to pay its bills. With that gone, five blocking votes could have the leverage to really screw things up. Just as it did in the McCarthy vote. Only we’re talking the global and the domestic economy.

Things will be far worse when the stakes are higher than a speaker vote.

Still, the upshot with the rules is we don’t know everything McCarthy gave away to ultra-right Freedom Caucus members in order to become speaker. Some concessions were in writing, like the rule to allow just one vote to bring up a no confidence vote on the speaker. So we know he’s a weak speaker going in.

But as Rep. James McGovern, the Democratic rules chair, pointed out in debate: “These rules are not a serious attempt at governing. They’re essentially a ransom note to America from the extreme right. The same members of Congress who held this body hostage last week are the ones who ran interference for the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, who tried to overturn a free and fair election, and even the new Speaker of the House voted to overturn the 2020 elections.”

McGovern’s pleading for transparency didn’t stop the vote on the rules. The ones we know. And the ones we don’t know.

The Republicans got to 218.

Thank goodness for the Democratic Senate majority and the Presidency, the check and balance.

In those four days last week, we got a bit of face time. But maybe not 7 percent worth—the percentage of AAPIs in our country.

The highest-ranking AAPI in the Democratic leadership, Rep. Ted Lieu, got some face time when he nominated Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries in the 9th round of speaker voting on Friday.

Across the aisle, I did see the TV cams get shots of Michelle Steele, the AAPI Republican who won
CA-45. She’s the one known for her scathingly racist attacks during the midterm elections, falsely accusing AAPI Democrat Jay Chen of being a Chinese Communist sympathizer. Anything to win the Vietnamese vote in their Orange County district.

Steele, one of two Korean American women on the Republican side, was just a powerless member of the new House majority. Blink and you missed her.

As I’ve pointed out, there was ugliness and disagreement among the Republicans.

But there’s one thing most all of them can agree on.


Many of the Republicans in Congress don’t like Asian Americans much, or at least policy resolutions to protect Asian Americans from hate due to the pandemic scapegoating by former President Trump.

Most of the Republicans, if they were in Congress at the time, all voted against House Resolution 908 from Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY).

The resolution to fight AAPI hate crimes did ultimately pass in the Senate. But not before 164 Republicans in the House showed their anti-Asian side and voted against it. The “no” votes include some of the key names in last week’s debacle: Andy Biggs, Bob Good, Chip Roy, Jim Jordan, Steve Scalise, and McCarthy himself.

So where do we draw some comfort in this new 118th Congress?

If you stayed up late on Friday night, the Democrats showed why they remain the party of the choice among AAPIs.

In his first speech to the 118th Congress, Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries eloquently spelled out what I have long called “the litany.” Using former Congressman John Lewis’ quote how we may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now, Jeffries waxed poetic.

Said Jeffries: “We are white; we are black; we are Latino; we are Asian; we are Native American.wWe are Christian; we are Jewish; we are Muslim; we are Hindu; We are religiously secular. We are gay; we are straight. We are young; we are older. We are women; we are men. We are citizens; we are dreamers. Out of many, we are one; that’s what makes America a great country.”

There was loud applause in the People’s House, the part of it that looks like America.

And Jeffries concluded: “And no matter what kind of haters are trying to divide us, we’re not going to let anyone take that away from us. Not now. Not ever.”

Once Jeffries passed the gavel to McCarthy around 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, few heard Kevin McCarthy make his first address.

“We believe government should be to help you, not go after you,” McCarthy said. He could have added “unless your name is Biden,” but he didn’t. “We’re going to pass bills to fix the nation, or its challenges, from wide open southern borders to ‘America last’ energy policies to woke indoctrination in our schools.”

Does that mean no AAPI history K-12?

McCarthy didn’t get into how Republicans want to cut Medicare or Social Security to balance the budget. He did mention going after China and using subpoena power to stage Republican witch hunts. And we know the GOP wants to go after abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. He also only mentioned the southern border. But there was nothing about real immigration reform. And nothing on solutions for the Dreamers, individuals who received Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Jeffries mentioned them.

McCarthy did not.

There was no “litany” from the new speaker so proud to be leader of the “people’s house.”

And yet it was a fitting start for the Republicans of 2023, a weak speech from a weak speaker in his moment of glory that few saw.

That’s what happens when after giving up so much, just holding the gavel is more important than democracy itself.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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