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The humiliation of Kevin McCarthy
Post-policy Republicans prefer posturing and tormenting each other to governing.
Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went down to humiliating defeat in his bid to take the speaker’s gavel Tuesday. Not satisfied with that, he then went down to humiliating defeat again. And then again.
Mercifully, the House eventually adjourned, which means McCarthy will probably go down to defeat a few more times over the next couple of days. Or weeks. Or months? Who knows.
McCarthy has no shame, and neither does his caucus. The GOP will continue to hit themselves in the face with large blunt objects until morale improves. Or, as seems more likely, until morale gets worse.
The posturing is the point
McCarthy’s failure here is personal. He has spent more than two years kowtowing to Trump and bending over backward to appease MAGA extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and all he got for it (at least so far) was Tuesday’s once-in-a-century public degradation.
But it’s also an indication that the GOP is badly broken. As they’ve become more and more divorced from reality, Republicans have lost interest not just in compromise, but in policy and governing. Members are focused on personal grudges and on posturing as True Conservatives. They don’t really care if the House passes anything, ever. When humiliating whomever is in charge is the only policy goal, it becomes very difficult for any GOP speaker to lead such a narrow, fickle, and extremist majority. (And McCarthy’s stature was damaged by his party’s underwhelming showing in November.)
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As David Lurie pointed out in this newsletter a couple days ago, McCarthy will still probably become speaker at some point. But intransigent conservative radicals in the Freedom Caucus mustered 19 votes against his speakership on the first and second leadership ballots, marking only the second time since the Civil War the speaker vote has ever gone past the first one. Then, on the third ballot, the radicals got 20 votes. McCarthy needs 218 votes to win; Republicans enjoy only a 222-213 majority over Democrats.
You don’t need to be a mathematical genius to figure out that 222 minus 19 or 20 is a lot less than 218. McCarthy needs to somehow convince 15 or 16 rabid Never McCarthy-ites to switch their votes if he wants to be speaker, and it’s not at all clear how he can do that.
As Lurie argues, McCarthy’s strategy of appeasing House radicals with swinish devotion, election denialism, and promises of all-Hunter-Biden-investigations-all-the-time has been a ludicrous failure. That’s no surprise, since McCarthy has always been a deeply unimpressive figure. Notably, he refused to tell his caucus whether he was going to vote to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the early days of 2021, when Donald Trump was plotting to steal the election. (McCarthy ended up voting to reject the election results.)
Yet, despite McCarthy’s weakness, no one in the House Republican caucus has put forward a credible alternative to him. On the second ballot, the Never McCarthy caucus coalesced around Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. But Jordan himself nominated and voted for McCarthy. The rebels couldn’t even find a consensus nominee who would vote for themselves.
Journalist Dave Troy suggested, reasonably, that the House caucus isn’t trying to nominate someone else, but is instead trying to force McCarthy to accede to specific extremist demands. In particular, they might be trying to force McCarthy to refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to massive cuts to Social Security. That’s a strategy that could easily lead to global financial collapse.
No doubt Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert would love to gut Social Security, and would probably enjoy destroying the global economy. Gaetz basked in his nihilism on Twitter.
But is opposition to McCarthy really a fiendish plot to achieve those goals? McCarthy claimed Tuesday that holdouts were demanding certain committee chairs, and Gaetz even said he would sooner have Democrats lead the House than vote for McCarthy. It sounds like some of the rebels are interested in personal advancement first and maybe last.
McCarthy is obviously a self-interested source. But he’s also given the right virtually everything it’s wanted, including agreeing to a measure allowing as few as five House members to oust the speaker at any time. He tied himself up and offered the Freedom Caucus a large hammer to bash him with, effectively ensuring his speakership would be nasty, brutish, and short. But they still said “no.” It’s almost as if they just like the sound of that word.
Fox News is now an end in itself
“No” is in fact probably the Freedom Caucus’s only real goal. Thanks to the right wing news bubble, Republicans barely need to make a coherent case to their voters these days. Fox and its clones prefer symbolic conspiracy nonsense like “Build the Wall” or “Stop the Steal” over real solutions to actual problems, since those are often complicated and make for poor television. As a result, the GOP has become a “post policy” party, which has little interest in or use for actual legislating.
Instead, the goal of many in the GOP caucus is to get Fox News hits (or, failing that, Newsmax hits). And the way to do that is to brand oneself as a true uncompromising conservative. And the way to do that is to find some other Republican nearby and declare them a RINO. Or, as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein put it during an earlier House crisis, “What the Freedom Caucus gets out of it is the chance to win in the Real Conservative game … at the cost of actual conservative policy preferences.”
There are some conservatives who would actually like to govern the House. To do that, they could simply ignore the slimy churn of the Gaetzs and Chip Roys and Paul Gosars, and nominate a compromise moderate Republican candidate who would attract Democratic votes. Democrats and Republicans just reached a deal to do something similar in the divided Pennsylvania state House.
The problem is that national Republicans are terrified of being labeled as RINOs. Rabid GOP primary voters torched the career of the extremely conservative Liz Cheney because she pushed back against Trumpist election denialism. Unqualified posturing, foaming, and screaming is a successful GOP primary strategy; passing legislation and behaving in a responsible fashion is not. That’s why McCarthy himself has been assiduously sucking up to Trump even though there is plenty of evidence he privately loathes him.
Pundits like to run “Dems in Disarray” headlines because it’s alliterative. And Democrats do have some serious policy differences in their caucus about substantive issues like health care, policing, taxing the rich, and filibuster reform, to name just a handful.
Republicans are much more divided, though, not least because their differences aren’t really over policy at all. The Never McCarthy wing of the GOP wants one thing — to show that they are more anti-establishment than McCarthy. The entire extent of their ambition is to kick McCarthy in the teeth. And, maybe somewhere down the road, to destroy democracy and plunge the globe into a nightmare of chaos and misery. But they are weak on object permanence, and Kevin McCarthy’s teeth are right there.
This doesn’t mean that the GOP is harmless. The party could easily do terrible damage to the country while tearing itself to pieces. In the meantime, though, there’s some satisfaction in watching a bunch of craven dingbats make each other miserable.
That’s it for today
I’ll be back with more Friday. Cheers.