Ha! I guess Donald Trump showed the haters. When the Republican nominee announced his stable of economic advisers on August 5, he was promptly criticized for failing to include any women. This would be a boneheaded play for any presidential contender. For a guy whose popularity among women is slightly lower than that of a urinary tract infection, the situation could not stand. So on Thursday, Trump rolled out another batch of advisers, heavy on the ladies. Et voila! Problem solved.
Except. In his scramble to get some estrogen into the mix, Trump signed on Betsy McCaughey. A former lieutenant governor of New York, McCaughey (pronounced “McCoy”) is a veteran fixture among the conservative think-tank set. For decades, her specialty has been fighting against health-care reform—Hillarycare in the 1990s and Obamacare more recently. (She is the author of the book, Beating Obamacare.)
McCaughey’s fierce opposition to the ACA does not, of course, distinguish her from legions of other conservative wonks and activists. What does make her special, however, is McCaughey’s well-earned reputation—across the political spectrum—as one of the most dishonest, shameless, and irresponsible conservative thinkers on the scene today. Plus, she’s a famously narcissistic, self-promoting drama queen. In 2009, I wrote a long profile exploring some of the highlights, and lowlights, of McCaughey’s soap-operatic career. In many, many ways, she should make a glorious fit for Trump World—but not such a great choice for America.
McCaughey’s explosion onto the political scene was based on a lie (or extreme ignorance, if you want to be more generous). In 1994, she wrote a scathing, deep-dive takedown of Hillarycare for The New Republic. The piece turned out to be total bunk, and its central argument (that patients would be prohibited from independently paying for additional care not covered by the Clinton plan) thoroughly disproven—but not before McCaughey became the It Girl of the political right.
Brainy, attractive, and outspoken, McCaughey soon found herself tapped to run as New York Governor George Pataki’s lieutenant. To put it delicately, she did not play well with others. Pataki aides quickly pegged her as self-absorbed and self-promoting to the point of disloyalty. Before she was even sworn in, McCaughey used her own money to hire a personal publicist. Once in office, she issued reports and press releases and gave speeches that contradicted her boss’s positions. She was also notoriously rough on staff. One campaign story had her ordering an aide out of her van on the side of a highway. As lieutenant governor, she was accused of using the troopers assigned to her security detail to run her personal errands, prompting Pataki to pull her detail for a couple of weeks. Party leaders and Pataki staffers alike began publicly slamming McCaughey as “unstable,” “paranoid,” and “too bizarre to describe.” The governor cut her out of meetings. In 1996, Republican leaders refused to make her a delegate to the RNC’s presidential-nominating convention.
How did McCaughey handle the pressure? Not so well. She accused Pataki aides of “McCarthyism,” accused the governor of instructing her driver to make her late for official events, and publicly feuded with other members of the administration. When the party refused her credentials to the convention, she tried to go as a member of the media. Word on the street was that she was in talks to become a Democrat and run for Senator Al D’Amato’s seat.
When Pataki dropped her from the ticket in 1997, McCaughey did indeed jump to the Democrats and promptly launched a gubernatorial challenge to Pataki, funded by her second husband, Wall Street financier Wilbur Ross. He was, at the time, still her boss. This is when things got really weird. A couple of months in, McCaughey became convinced Pataki was bugging her phones. She hired a counter-surveillance guy to sweep her home and office; when he didn’t find anything, she allegedly stiffed him his $3,000 fee. She continued to hemorrhage staff, and departing aides continued to trash her in the media. As one ex-staffer told the New York Daily News, “A lot of politicians are out for the limelight, but Betsy’s constant need 24 hours a day was something I’d never seen.”
Sound like a certain presidential nominee?
As it turned out, McCaughey’s husband cut off funding for her campaign just before the 1998 primary election. (The couple split not long after. Two years later, McCaughey sued Ross for $40 million for supposedly breaking his promise to fund her campaign no matter what.)
By the time Barack Obama rolled into the White House, McCaughey had given up on electoral politics and was back to her health-care wonkery. As the ACA moved center stage, McCaughey became one of its toughest critics—well, not critic so much as truth-twisting, bomb-throwing, hysteria-promoting assassins. (It was McCaughey, for instance, who originally floated the bogus specter of death panels that Sarah Palin subsequently whipped into a national frenzy.) She would take the data, then crunch, twist, and warp it beyond recognition, and let loose with the most hyperbolic, alarmist interpretations imaginable. (During a radio interview with the now deceased Fred Thompson, McCaughey asserted, “Congress would make it mandatory, absolutely require, that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.”) Any time anyone called her on what the head of the AARP called her “fraudulent scare tactics,” she would just insist that they needed to read, say, page 365, paragraph 3, footnote 16 of the Obamacare bill. And on those occasions when they did, and pointed out that the facts did not support her claim, McCaughey would just spout more twisted data and page numbers. Even conservative wonks expressed dismay at her rank dishonesty, including one of President George H.W. Bush’s former health-care advisers, Gail Wilensky, who groused that McCaughey’s dishonest scare tactics “give rational, knowledgeable, thoughtful conservatives a bad name.”
Through it all, McCaughey just shrugged off the attacks with her trademark smile and sunny assertion that she was the only one being straight with people. Never did she back down or admit being wrong or allow that she might be overstating her case just the teensiest bit. (Again, sound familiar?) Not even Jon Stewart could break through the woman’s impenetrable sheen of bullshit.
Which makes you wonder if the denizens of Trumpworld should be a tad nervous about bringing McCaughey aboard. As Pataki learned all too well, McCaughey is not above trashing her entire team, most definitely including her boss, if she thinks it will gain her an inch. And she will do it with a smile and with the absolute certainty that she is in the right. With McCaughey, Team Trump may soon find out whether there is such a thing as too perfect a match.