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Does The House Need a Speaker?
Not for a month, and maybe not for the rest of this Congress. Plus: Kamala Harris thinks politics is beneath her.
When Matt Gaetz gave Democrats the opportunity to remove Kevin McCarthy as House speaker in early October, I wrote that Democrats quite obviously had to take their shot. They faced substantial upside and limited downside, and not going for it would have been “political malpractice,” as another Republican, Rep. Tom McClintock, put it.
The jury is still out on the ultimate result, but I think Democrats have to feel pretty good about the consequences so far.
First of all, Republicans remain in disarray. They can’t elect a speaker and they’re madder than ever at each other. Swing-district Republicans were forced onto the record about whether they wanted to make right-winger Jim Jordan the speaker. Some, like Marc Molinaro and Tom Kean Jr., were even so obliging as to put themselves on the record on both sides of that question — inviting primary challenges from the right and attack ads from the left. An important way Democrats can gain politically from this episode is by facing fewer strong Republican incumbents in competitive districts, whether due to lost primaries or exasperated retirements. The odds of both such outcomes have gone up over the last two weeks.
But with Republicans still unable to elect a new speaker after so many attempts, a more important path is emerging toward a kind of coalition government that would increase the odds of passage for Democratic priorities like Ukraine aid and government spending bills at the levels that were set in the debt-limit agreement reached earlier this year. Two weeks ago, I wasn’t sure this path — the one that includes legislative upsides for Democrats in addition to electoral upsides from this mess — would materialize, but I think it’s more likely now.
This wouldn’t be the kind of robust coalition government that some people have been envisioning — not one that would give Democrats the power to bring certain bills to the floor, and not even one involving a formal power-sharing arrangement of the kind that’s seen not that infrequently in state capitals. Instead, it would be one with a weak Republican acting speaker, serving at the sufferance of whatever majority is disinclined to block his action on any particular issue, and bringing up only certain must-pass legislation (like spending bills) and overwhelmingly popular bills (like a resolution in support of Israel) and doing little else.
Establishing such a structure became — for a brief moment this week — the official position of much of the House Republican establishment. Kevin McCarthy, backed by Jim Jordan and several former Republican speakers, advocated a plan to endow Patrick McHenry, the acting speaker pro tempore, with expanded powers to bring legislation before the House through the end of the year. Jordan had selfish reasons to support this plan — it would have frozen the speaker race in place with him as the elected speaker-designee, letting him try to build support pending an expected speaker election in January — and ultimately House Republicans didn’t go for it. But they also didn’t need to go for it yet. The reason to empower the speaker pro tempore is that the House can’t sit idle forever, or even for that much longer — the government is set to shut down around Thanksgiving and they will need to pass legislation to open it. Aid to Israel is also a top bipartisan priority, one that President Biden and congressional Democrats (and some Republicans) hope to tie to Ukraine funding. But they don’t need to pass any of that legislation this week. If Republicans still haven’t chosen a speaker by mid-November, the question will actually be urgent, and signing up for the plan will be a lot more tempting than it is right now.
Democrats, meanwhile, sent signals they’d go along with empowering McHenry. In a caucus meeting on Friday, House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries talked about circumstances in which Democrats might cooperate in empowering an acting Republican speaker, and one condition he set out was that the candidate must have voted to certify the 2020 election results — that’s a condition that many of the alternative candidates fail, but McHenry passes. There’s a reason for Democrats to be more willing to empower an acting speaker than they were to prop up Kevin McCarthy: the success of the motion to vacate and the ensuing weeks of chaos will make clear that, if an acting speaker is empowered, that is happening only because Democrats agree to the arrangement, and therefore can only be used to move legislation with a broad bipartisan consensus. If the acting speaker tries to move an agenda Democrats find objectionable, they can simply team up with some rump of Republicans to remove him, too.
Even though it wouldn’t actually put them in power, this would be a huge improvement in circumstances for Democrats compared to the way the House was organized prior to McCarthy’s defenestration. Republicans understand this, which is why so many in the caucus have assailed the idea as capitulation to the left. But unless they can achieve near-unanimity on some replacement speaker — so far looking very difficult! — it may be their best available option by the end of next month. If this option is pursued, I don’t see why Congress couldn’t stick with it for quite some time. And it would certainly put to rest the idea that Democrats were the dog that caught the car when they fired McCarthy.
Kamala Harris thinks politics is beneath her
Matt Yglesias thinks I’m wrong about the cost-benefit of dropping Kamala Harris from the Democratic presidential ticket. (I wrote recently that Biden should replace Harris on the ticket with a running mate who is a more credible future leader of the Democratic Party. Gretchen Whitmer is my pick.) He agrees with me that the political costs would probably not be high, but he sees low upside, and argues that there’s a simpler solution available — Harris (and her boss, Joe Biden) should just be better at politics. He wrote last month:
For example, the White House just created the first-ever national task force on gun violence, and they put Harris in charge. Given her background as a prosecutor, it seems like a great role for her. But why not use the word “crime” when talking about it, rather than prog-speak? … What if Harris said that the administration wants to restore the Roe standard and is committed to making abortion safe, legal, and rare through comprehensive family planning services and social support?
I actually basically agree with this — Harris’s choice to abandon the “smart on crime” politics that used to be her political signature is a choice, and her writing and actions early in her political career demonstrate that she is capable of talking about issues in a way that would be more appealing to the median voter than the way she approaches them today. But as she sought to rise from San Francisco DA to California Attorney General and then the US Senate and the vice presidency, she got ahead by playing an inside game aimed at Democratic Party operatives and activists whose approval she no longer needs. If she were to pivot away from the prog-speak gobbledygook she learned either for them or from them, back toward messages actually aimed at the real-world general electorate, she would be less of a political liability to the party and could even become an asset.
The problem is that she seems inveterately unwilling to tell voters why they should support her. That’s made clear in Astead Herndon’s profile of her for the New York Times Magazine, which starts with the observation that “the vice president is still struggling to make the case for herself — and feels she shouldn’t have to.” He describes Harris’ unwillingness to provide meaningful answers to his questions about what her whole deal is, for example when he asked about her own 2009 book that laid out a philosophy of criminal justice policy:
I told Harris that I read [Smart on Crime] and came away struck by how differently she — and Democrats — talk about criminal justice now, 14 years later. And like [Tulsi] Gabbard, I decided to ask her how I should think about the changes in her philosophy. Were they “an evolution based on new evidence? Or is that a kind of tacit admission that the view from 20 years ago might have been incorrect?” I asked.
“Why don’t we break it down to which part you’re talking about, and then I can tell you,” she said, leaning forward.
I mentioned the elimination of cash bail, which Harris embraced during her run for president but never during her time in California.
“I think it depends on what kind of crime you’re talking about, to be honest,” she said.
I tried to ask another way.
“When you think about what changed from then to now, is there anything you look back and say, I wish we did differently?”
“You have to be more specific,” Harris said.
By this point, the vice president would not break eye contact, and suddenly I had more in common with Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh than I ever expected. Just as in those Senate confirmation hearings, Harris’s tone was perfectly pitched, firm but not menacing — confrontational but not abrasive, just enough for you to know she thought these questions were a waste of her time.
Herndon’s choice to compare himself to Brett Kavanaugh is apt. One of Harris’s “breakout” moments in Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation hearing was when she “grilled” Kavanaugh about whether he ever took a meeting with an attorney at Kasowitz, Benson and Torres — the firm headed by Donald Trump’s then-attorney, Mark Kasowitz — to discuss the Mueller investigation. Kavanaugh looked confused, like he couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. He repeated the name of the firm. She gave him stern guidance, like “Be sure about your answer, sir.” It went on like this for several minutes. Some liberal viewers kvelled over her prosecutorial style; The Independent called it an “epic takedown.” But Harris didn’t have the goods — if there was some particular improper meeting she was aware of, she never disclosed it. A day later, after looking at the firm’s full roster of attorneys to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anyone, Kavanaugh came back with a clear answer: “no.”
That is, Harris can do a performance of prosecution. But if you perform a prosecution without an actual case to prosecute — using rhetorical tactics with no real underlying argument to make — you sound empty or even petulant.
This has been a problem for her beyond hearings. In an interview for the Times piece, Herndon asked Harris whether it bothered her when Harry Reid said that she was chosen for VP because she was a black woman; she responded “I don’t think I understand your question,” which was obviously a lie, just like she was lying two years ago when she told Lester Holt “I don’t understand the point you’re making,” when he asked her why she hadn’t visited the southern border. What she really meant was she didn’t like these questions and didn’t want to answer them.
An obfuscatory style of argumentation can be tempting to lawyers — they are often “good” at winning an argument on points, as you might in a debate tournament, or if you are Vivek Ramaswamy — but real-life political arguments are not scored on points, and when you talk like this in politics, you just come off to voters like you’re hiding something. The odd part of Harris arguing like this is that I think this trap actually tends to apply less to lawyers who, like her, have extensive trial experience — they at least have experience talking to juries, which are full of people more normal than the ones who judge debate tournaments.
The Times profile is full of Harris allies talking about her background as a prosecutor, either as a defense of her appeal or, more puzzlingly, as an excuse for her lack of it. “Often in the White House, national leaders have to base their arguments on emotion and gut — and as a prosecutor that’s not the job,” said her former communications director, Jamal Simmons, to Herndon. This is exactly wrong — making an emotional appeal to members of the ordinary public is a core job skill both for prosecuting jury trials and for getting elected district attorney, which is a reason that former district attorneys are often highly successful in their pursuit of other elected offices. Her failure to emulate their success is a little baffling; certainly, she isn’t helping herself politically by spouting the kind of noise-shaped air that produced the frame of this negative Times piece, but her persistence in this style makes me doubt Harris can do the obvious thing and just be a better politician.
One other problem the piece nods to is the way Harris is surrounded by figures who clearly think her approach is fine. And I think this gets at the larger political error the party has made regarding her. Herndon notes that “the people closest to Harris, the tight-knit group of Black women in national Democratic politics who helped make her Biden’s choice for vice president, are increasingly becoming incensed with how she’s being treated.” A mistake we see over and over in Democratic politics is the conflation of the interests and preferences of demographic groups with the interests and preferences of Democratic Party insiders from those demographic groups, and I believe we’re seeing that Democrats have made it here with the choice and ongoing defense of Harris as necessary for securing the black vote.
When the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pushes a Democratic president to offer cabinet roles to alumni of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, that’s not the politics of the Hispanic vote — it’s the politics of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus vote, and it leads to mistakes. Similarly, it’s undeniably clear that Kamala Harris is a very well-liked and fiercely-defended figure among women who work in Democratic politics for a living, including black women. More broadly, the politics of representation by quota — of promising, for example, to appoint the first black woman to the Supreme Court — is a strategy to appeal to members of the black professional class who can relate to the idea of seeing themselves in positions of power. In the most absurd recent example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom backed himself into a corner by promising to appoint a black woman should he have an opportunity to appoint another US senator representing California. Keeping that promise became fraught when Dianne Feinstein died and he did not wish to pick Rep. Barbara Lee, the black woman who was already running for a full Senate term in next year’s election. So he chose as a caretaker appointee Laphonza Butler, a seasoned political operative and close associate of Harris’ who was quoted in Herndon’s article fiercely defending her, and who also happens to be a resident of Maryland. I can see how this outcome serves the interests of the Democratic professional operative class; what it has to do with black voters in California is less clear to me.
More broadly, Democrats’ receding appeal to black voters is not happening among the black professional class. The significant erosion of support that Democrats are experiencing among non-white voters, including black voters, is almost entirely among voters without college degrees — voters less likely to feel a personal stake in the race of the people holding key government jobs and more likely to be motivated by feeling that their personal economic fortunes have stagnated due to inflation and that a Democratic-controlled government has not apparently taken policy actions to improve those fortunes. Kamala Harris can certainly draw enthusiastic crowds on the campuses of HBCUs.1 But not only has her nomination and likely renomination failed to sustain sufficient enthusiasm for Democrats among black voters more broadly; the use of representation as a strategy for winning the black vote has distracted Democrats from the steps they need to take to retain the black voters who are most culturally distant from Harris and her aides.
It clearly irks Harris to be discussed as a diversity hire. But the perception that she is simply here to be black and a woman is reinforced by her steadfast unwillingness to carve out a clear ideological identity for herself. If she told a clearer story about who she is, what she is for, and what she believes in — what Herndon kept trying to get out of her in the feature, and that she kept refusing to provide — then voters would have less reason to fixate on her identity as her most defining political characteristic.
Though after Harris’s speech at Morehouse College last month, one student complained to Atlanta Public Radio station WABE about what he saw as Harris’ evasive answers. Per the station: “‘She was really dodging the questions so much,’ said Jibril Young, a first-year at Morehouse who also pointed to when Harris addressed gun safety. ‘She said, “Oh, let’s ban assault weapons and, like, do background checks”… It was nothing like new.’”