McCarthy's disaster was predictable and other notes
My look at politics and the media.
Here’s the thing about the utter mess that was the House speaker fight — the first of its sort in a century: we should’ve expected it.
Since the late 1970s when Newt Gingrich, Bob Walker, Vin Weber and their allies in the Conservative Opportunity Society refused to accept the clubby norms of the chamber and the loyal opposition ethos of the House GOP (which had been in the minority since 1954), successive waves of political bomb throwing right wingers have pushed the House GOP caucus further and further to the right and toward the art of politics as warfare.
The first wave came in the late 70s, and especially with the Reagan Revolution of 1980. The second came with the Republican Revolution in 1994 when the GOP retook the House for the first time in 40 years, the third came with the Tea Party in 2010 and the rise of Donald Trump produced a fourth wave over the past 6 years.
Each successive wave made the GOP more conservative and less interested in governing or compromise — even when divided government demanded it. It explained why Gingrich led a revolt against a president of his own party when George H.W. Bush and his fellow Republican congressional leaders (Gingrich was the House GOP whip) cut a budget deal with Democrats that included increased taxes. It explained why there was a lengthy government shutdown in the winter of 1995-1996.
And it explained why after divided government subsequently proved quite productive in the late 1990s, it was singularly unproductive in the 2010s.
Another pattern is also at work that explains why the rebellious right flank of the House GOP secured so many concessions from their leadership. The center-right wing of the party — which itself has moved consistently to the right since the 1970s — simply doesn’t play for keeps like the far right does. Even this week, 20 members demanded, and achieved, significant concessions from (finally) Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his leadership team even as Republicans in districts Joe Biden won — who have every incentive to see a productive Congress full of moderation and bipartisanship — seemed to have only one demand: that McCarthy be speaker so a precedent wasn’t set in which an ideological faction could bring down a speaker nominee. They backed away from earlier promises to oppose changing the rules allowing members to try to force a speaker out of power (the motion to vacate) and never really said sorry guys, if any Republican nominee for speaker gives you [insert demand] we’ll vote against him. They also refused to engage in real negotiations with Democrats about a compromise speaker, which would have given their leadership leverage, even though it sends a clear signal that they’ll fall in line behind whatever McCarthy does and he can cater to his right flank.
This tradition of not fighting back goes back to Bush not seeking any retribution against Gingrich for his egregious breach of the responsibilities that limit the flexibility that congressional party leaders have when their party occupies the White House. Time and again, first moderate Republicans, then governing oriented conservatives fell in line — they’ve supported far right conservatives who have won primaries even over moderate Democrats, they’ve gone along with their leadership in almost all cases (the initial demise of the House’s Affordable Care Act replacement plan in 2017 was an exception).
It’s a far cry from the way moderate Democrats exert their influence and usually dictate the terms of what their party can do.
It’s also a factor in why the GOP keeps moving further to the right, away from governance and toward seeing politics as warfare.
The standoff (which we can’t say is safely over until the House has passed a rules package) also reflects how the power of the the party leadership has waned dramatically — especially in the GOP. In fact, for right-wing Republicans attacking their own leadership has become a great way to enhance one’s stardom in the 2010s. The moment that best symbolized this was probably when then House Speaker John Boehner recited the Serenity Prayer in a conference meeting in December 2012 after his members refused to go along with a plan he proposed to provide leverage when negotiating with President Obama.
There are lots and lots of reasons for this development: the rise of social media and small dollar internet fundraising, the increased precision in gerrymandering, and geographic sorting, all of which have combined to make most members more at risk in primaries than in general elections and less dependent on the largesse and aid of the party leadership. On the right, the massive conservative media engine — with its need for drama and loathing of anything boring, has turned backbenchers into stars. They make for far better guests because they can fulminate, demand that the leadership give not one inch, promise to fight for listeners and viewers and generally play the role of hero in the conservative media soap opera. By contrast, leadership has a responsibility to govern (and protect their more moderate members whose survival is crucial to maintaining a majority), which means compromise, nuanced explanations of why a campaign promise can’t happen, etc.
The history of Republican House leaders since Gingrich pushed the conciliatory Bob Michel into retirement has been bleak.
All of this is ominous for the next two years. We know Congress is going to have to raise the debt limit. We know they have to pass appropriations bills to keep the government open. And the events of the last week, combined with this history, indicate it’s going to be very difficult and that default and long government shutdowns are definitely possible if McCarthy proves too weak and interested in catering to his far right flank to cut deals palatable to Senate Democrats or President Biden.
Honestly, the only way key bills may pass is by discharge petition where at least 5 House Republicans join with all Democrats to sign a petition forcing a vote on something that McCarthy won’t put on the floor. At least under such circumstances, he can say to the far right Freedom Caucus, “What could I have done? I tried.” And it’s far from clear that the most moderate House Republicans (who are really pretty conservative) are willing to undertake such a maneuver. Even if they are, it’s a cumbersome and time consuming process.
As I tweeted the other night, we’re about to see Republicans demanding draconian spending cuts if the reporting about the deal McCarthy cut with conservatives is accurate. They’ll also profess to care a lot about the national debt.
But as the R-Street Institute’s Corie Whalen smartly noted, it will all be for show. Republicans magically find their zest for budget balancing only when they face divided government — when it can serve as a tool for fighting against Democratic priorities. The last three Republican presidents to have unified control of government, however, have actually skyrocketed the national debt by ratcheting up defense spending and tax cutting.
In case we needed any reminder that the GOP has cared far more about cutting taxes than balancing the budget or cutting the national debt since the 1980s, they are reportedly planning to include a rule mandating that tax increases can only pass the House if a three-fifths majority supports them.
The cold, hard truth is an older era of Republicans — think Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush — cared about balanced budgets and fiscal rectitude. In fact, it was the GOP’s economic orthodoxy until the 1970s when they realized that it was a lot more popular to promise people things and latched onto tax cuts.
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