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Republicans Should Stop Expecting Democrats to Fix Their Problems, Speaker Edition
As Rep. Tom McClintock noted, it would have been "political malpractice" for Democrats to save Kevin McCarthy
One of the weird aspects of the events that led up to Kevin McCarthy’s removal as speaker of the House of Representatives is that, prior to being ousted, he cut a deal with Democrats to keep the government open, but without really doing any dealmaking.
A week ago, it appeared we were headed for a government shutdown, with House Republicans unable to agree on any proposal to keep the government open. Suddenly, on Saturday morning, McCarthy decided to bring an essentially “clean” continuing resolution to the House floor that would fund the government for an additional 47 days, but with no additional aid to Ukraine. That resolution was going to need Democratic votes to pass — a lot of Democratic votes, since McCarthy was bringing it up under suspension of the rules, a process that requires a two-thirds majority for passage. But McCarthy didn’t check with Democrats about their willingness to support the resolution. And he also didn’t try hard to win over their support — he even rejected a request for 90 minutes’ delay in considering the resolution so Democrats would have time to review the legislative text for its actual cleanliness.
Democrats used some parliamentary tactics to delay the vote, creating time for themselves to review and consider the bill. But after that delay — a delay of hours, not days — Democrats found the proposal to be satisfactory and voted for it in overwhelming numbers, so it passed easily.
A shutdown was averted. But rather than feeling good about a bipartisan success, Democrats seem to have come away from the experience confused and annoyed. The refusal of a brief time to review the bill text wasn’t just discourteous — it led to suspicion among Democrats that the bill was not as “clean” as advertised.1 Aaron Fritschner, deputy chief of staff to Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter that “multiple members” of the Democratic caucus told him they suspected McCarthy had brought up the CR because he believed Democrats would vote it down — and therefore not as a strategy to achieve a bipartisan deal, but to find a way to pin the shutdown blame on Democrats. McCarthy himself had predicted on Saturday that Democrats would vote down the CR due to its lack of Ukraine funding. And on Sunday, the day after the vote, McCarthy even went on CBS’s “Face The Nation” and attacked Democrats with talking points that seemed like they’d been drafted in expectation of Democrats voting down the CR: McCarthy said the delays showed Democrats were willing to shut down the government and let the troops go unpaid, even though Democrats had in fact voted overwhelmingly for his plan.
This is important context when considering House Democrats’ unanimous decision to line up with Matt Gaetz and force McCarthy’s ouster just three days after the CR vote. On top of McCarthy’s actions over the last few months that frayed relations between the parties in the House — like trying to recut the spending agreements that were established in the debt limit deal and opening an impeachment inquiry without a vote of the House — he also conducted the CR vote itself in a way that made Democrats less inclined to trust him to work productively with them in the future.
Democrats weren’t even offered a deal with McCarthy to turn down
While Democrats have no obligation to help Republicans organize their majority, they do benefit from a Republican leadership that is willing to advance bipartisan priorities. So that sets up the key question about McCarthy’s ouster — did pushing him out make it less likely that Democrats would achieve their key legislative objectives for the House this year, which are bills to finance the government at the levels set in the debt limit agreement earlier this year, and to provide supplemental funding to Ukraine?
I don’t think it’s clear that those objectives have been impaired by McCarthy’s ouster, and McCarthy made no effort to convince Democrats that they would be.
It’s important to note, as Fritschner does, that it’s pure speculation that McCarthy was going to be more cooperative with Democrats on these issues than other potential speaker candidates. He was unwilling to offer Democrats any kind of assurance about constructive cooperation. To assume he was going to be a good partner in the future — to work with them on full-year funding bills at the debt-limit deal levels and on Ukraine aid — was to assume he was deceiving his own caucus. And that’s a hell of a thing to rest your vote on in the absence of any kind of explicit offer, especially when you think the bipartisan deal you just got done was quite possibly intended as a trick.
Yes, a new speaker will likely try to renege on the spending levels set in the debt limit agreement. But McCarthy was already trying to renege on it too, and telegraphing his intention to spend the next several weeks bringing up hard-right spending proposals with no chance of approval in the Senate. And getting Ukraine aid to the floor was going to be an extremely heavy lift with or without McCarthy as speaker — perhaps this is an area where it’s time to try a discharge petition.
Any spending bills enacted under the next speaker will be enacted due to the same laws of political gravity that drove McCarthy’s own actions. The reason he wanted a CR — as he stated repeatedly and loudly — was not some abstract principle about bipartisanship or continuity of government. It was that shutting down the government would have damaged Republicans politically while failing to achieve their policy objectives. Ultimately, any deal to keep the government running was going to require bipartisan support in the Senate and the president’s signature, and that fact severely limited his or any other speaker’s ability to maneuver.
This has been a central theme of Republican legislating for even longer than Donald Trump has been dominating Republican politics. It goes back to the cockamamie “defund Obamacare” efforts that Ted Cruz was pushing in 2013 — these strategies fail not because Republicans lack resolve but because they don’t work, and while government shutdowns sometimes happen along the way, they don’t help achieve the goal. Republican Senators are already making this argument: installing a very conservative speaker like Jim Jordan does not create any sort of magic that makes right-wing bills moveable through the Senate. Any new speaker, like McCarthy, will have to agree to reopen the government sooner or later, and it will have to be on terms acceptable to the Senate.
So that’s the weakness of the case for retaining McCarthy. Meanwhile, Democrats have gained a lot politically by ousting him.
Defenestrating McCarthy has increased Democrats’ odds of retaking the House next year
On Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee announced it was delaying its fall fundraising gala, which had been scheduled for next Thursday in Dallas.
“Our focus next week needs to be the election of our next Speaker and the legislative work before us,” wrote Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the NRCC. His suggestion that the House will be doing legislative work in coming days is optimistic — the real issue here is that Republicans don’t have a speaker and won’t have one for a little bit, and it’s difficult to ask big donors for money when you don’t have a leader to implement a strategy.
One of Kevin McCarthy’s political strengths was his fundraising. Removing him from the helm makes it harder for the party to raise money. Republicans may well pick a new speaker who’s off-putting to much of the donor class, like Jim Jordan, and that would also make it harder to raise money. So that’s one way Democrats win: By worsening the campaign finance situation for House Republicans.
The new speaker election may also prove politically costly for Republican members representing swing districts. All three of the apparent candidates for speaker — Reps. Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise (who have announced campaigns) and Kevin Hern (who is likely to) — have more conservative personae than McCarthy. If Scalise or Hern ultimately becomes speaker, this probably won’t matter too much; Scalise may have once called himself “David Duke without the baggage,” but he wouldn’t be a hyper-attention-grabbing figure as speaker and he’d probably mostly fade into the wallpaper, like McCarthy did.
But if Jim Jordan becomes speaker… hoo boy.
Jim Jordan is a brash, attention-grabbing rockstar of the right-wing. He’s also just been endorsed for speaker by Donald Trump. If Jordan wins the Republican Conference vote to be speaker designee, vulnerable representatives like Mike Lawler and Anthony D’Esposito and Brian Fitzpatrick will be in the position of voting to make him — Donald Trump’s guy — the speaker of the House. Jordan will be legible to voters and usable in attack ads to paint as extreme these representatives who desperately want to be seen as moderates. It could be a repeat of 1996, when attacks on “Dole-Gingrich” led to the defeat of 18 incumbent Republican members, mostly on the coasts and in the upper Midwest, while only three Democratic incumbents lost.2
Plus, Republicans are now in disarray, which is how you want your opposition. Rep. Nancy Mace, who for inscrutable reasons voted to evict McCarthy, represents a coastal South Carolina district with a modest Republican lean. Now it’s unclear how hard other Republicans will work to help her retain that seat. To the extent that this mess makes it harder for Republicans to work together, that makes Democrats more likely to win the next election.
Finally, while I don’t think it is a likely outcome, the move to vacate the chair and the lack of an obvious new designee for speaker increases the probability that Republicans will be unable to get to 218 votes for any potential speaker, leading to a stalemate that could lead to a resolution in which Democrats gain influence over who becomes speaker and how the chamber is run. Again, that probably won’t happen, but it could, and it would be a huge coup for Democrats if it did.
Why didn’t McCarthy work harder to save himself?
If Kevin McCarthy really wanted to retain his speakership, there are certain things I would have expected him to do. Why didn’t he use the full 48 hours he was entitled to wait after Matt Gaetz filed the motion to vacate before calling a vote? That was time he could have used to try to win over some Democratic support or even herd the handful of Republicans who were breaking with him. What the hell does Nancy Mace actually want? It’s a question he could have used that time to investigate. Or he could have gone to Rep. Tim Burchett to apologize for seeming to mock his intention to pray about how to vote. Instead, McCarthy chose to take the vote right away, despite not knowing exactly what the likely outcome was, and forfeiting time he could have used to shore up his position.
And even after he lost the vote, he could have refused to go quietly.
McCarthy’s decision to quit is actually what I find strangest of all about the way the last week has unfolded. Establishment Republicans are universally bemoaning how the motion to vacate has been used by a tiny fraction of the caucus to undermine the overall will of House Republicans about how they should be led. And yet, they have handsomely rewarded Matt Gaetz. He got just six other Republicans — less than 4% of the caucus — to vote with him to vacate the chair, and that was good enough to achieve his goal of imposing a new speaker. But McCarthy did not have to fold to Gaetz so easily. He could have sought the speakership again, declaring himself to be the choice of an overwhelming majority of the Republican Conference. And he could have sought to grind down the rebels in the same way he did in January — showing that much of the conference was prepared to support “only Kevin” and that they’d all have to accede to that sooner or later if they intended to do any legislative business.
Maybe this wouldn’t have worked — maybe Jordan or Scalise or others would have seized the opportunity to challenge McCarthy and his wall of support would have broken down. But maybe not. If McCarthy had achieved reinstatement (something Rep. Tom McClintock is still urging him to seek) then he would have strengthened the speakership by showing that a motion to vacate could only delay proceedings, not force a change in leadership. Instead, he has shown that the motion really is as powerful as Matt Gaetz thought it would be — a showing that will undermine the strength of the next Republican speaker (and perhaps the next one and the next one, if this keeps happening).
Republicans are mad because this sucks for them
Among acting speaker Patrick McHenry’s first actions in office was stripping former speaker Nancy Pelosi and her former deputy, Steny Hoyer, of their Capitol building “hideaway” offices. This is petty and not ultimately important, but it reflects what is clearly very real anger among House Republicans that Democrats did not help them out here.
Partly this reflects a perfectly ordinary reaction to what is, for them, a negative political event — Democrats chose to put the screws to Republicans, and nobody likes having the screws put to them. And partly, it reflects a degree of self-regard among non-Trump Republicans, who believe they deserve thanks and praise from their opponents for merely seeking to keep the lights on — never mind that, as McCarthy himself repeatedly explained, putting forward a CR to avoid a pointless shutdown was an act of rational political self-interest for Republicans, not a magnanimous gift to Democrats.
But mainly I think they’re mad because the situation they’re in sucks. Republicans are about to have a messy contest to choose a new speaker, it’s going to be harder for them to raise money, it’s going to be harder for them to work together as a team, and we’re about to see a number of votes and headlines that will make it harder for Republicans in swing districts to get re-elected. Ultimately, it’s going to be harder for them to retain their majority. I’d be mad if that were my week at work, too.
But the fact that House Republicans are so upset reinforces why it would have been, as Rep. McClintock put it, “political malpractice” if Democrats did anything other than vote along with Matt Gaetz. Gaetz and six of his Republican colleagues served them up an opportunity to improve their odds of winning the next election without obviously changing the odds that they’ll accomplish their near-term legislative agenda. How could you really expect them to do anything other than take it?
As Sarah Ferris of Politico notes, a timestamp on the bill text McCarthy wouldn’t grant Democrats 90 minutes to read revealed that it had been finalized 12 hours before it was even shown to Democrats. She said this was “really rankling” Democratic members, who had to scramble to figure out whether they were really voting on a clean bill or not.
In 1996, Republicans held their majority anyway because they did well winning open seats where Democratic members in the House didn’t seek re-election, especially in the south. But now Republicans have picked up substantially all the white-majority southern seats that were once ripe and available to expand their majority.