Nathaniel Banks won a congressional seat from Massachusetts as a Democrat in 1852. By 1854 he was reelected as a Know Nothing and was nominated to be Speaker, a process that began on December 3, 1855 and wasn’t successfully settled until February 2, 1856 on the 133rd ballot. No one— or almost no one— thinks the current Republican Party is going to continue tearing itself apart that long and this thing should wrap itself up soon, probably tomorrow on GOP Day.
Yesterday Mona Charen noted that McCarthy’s little problem looks, on the surface, “like the firebrands and zealots are in revolt against the GOP ‘establishment.’ But the reality is that the Republican establishment is deader than dead. It’s hard to date its demise with precision, but January 6, 2021 is a good marker.” And she suggested a second date that should live in infamy— “a date when, following a violent assault on the Capitol, two-thirds of the Republican caucus voted with the mob. The battle unfolding over the speakership is not between the extremists and the establishment. It’s between two camps of extremists. McCarthy, like all of the members of the Freedom Caucus who are attempting to thwart him, refused to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Like the Freedom Caucus, McCarthy has faithfully repeated the lie about the 2020 election being stolen. Like them, he has fanned the flames of conspiracism, pushed for an end to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, helped Harriet Hageman defeat Liz Cheney in the Wyoming primary, and enfolded Marjorie Taylor Greene in a great bear hug. He’s game for impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas, investigating Hunter Biden’s laptop, and removing the magnetometers at the entrance to the House floor… He has threatened to remove Eric Swalwell, Ilhan Omar, and Adam Schiff from their committees as revenge for Greene’s treatment by Democrats. He has expressed skepticism about aid to Ukraine, vowing that there would be no ‘blank check.’ What more could the Freedom Caucus demand? In fact, as the clock ticked down to the vote for speaker, McCarthy was willing to give in to every demand of the Freedom Caucus, even including the ‘motion to vacate the chair’ which would permit five members of Congress to call a vote for the speaker’s removal whenever they chose.”
If there were an establishment GOP remaining, it would recoil from the positions staked out by the leadership of the Freedom Caucus. Andy Biggs, who led the caucus from 2019 to 2022, refused to wear a mask even at the height of the pandemic. He sought a presidential pardon for his role in the fake elector scheme. He voted against giving medals to the Capitol police who behaved heroically on January 6. He opposed aid to Ukraine on the grounds that the border with Mexico remains unsecured. And he voted against admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO.
Bigg’s successor as Freedom Caucus chair is Scott Perry, who voted against a House resolution condemning the QAnon conspiracy, endorsed the “great replacement” garbage, and played a major role in the attempted coup of January 6. His texts to Mark Meadows reveal not a conservative but a borderline nut. He forwarded links to YouTube videos suggesting that votes had been manipulated by Italian satellites and recommended that Jeffrey Clark, a fellow refugee from reality, be installed as Attorney General. Like Biggs, he requested a presidential pardon.
These views do not place the Freedom Caucus on the right. They simply place them outside the realm of reason. And yet McCarthy, the supposed avatar of the Republican establishment, has been willing to surrender to their demands. His flexibility has not been rewarded only because they don’t really have demands. They don’t care about policy. If they did, they would seek something in exchange for their support. They haven’t. There is no price McCarthy would not stoop to pay— but they don’t have concrete goals other than posturing as anti-establishment. There is no way for McCarthy to negotiate with people whose only aim is to be seen as opposing him.
It’s the logical end point of a party that has descended into mindless demonization— of Democrats, of immigrants, of the “deep state,” of the FBI, of the medical profession, of the “woke” military— and now of one another. It’s hard to see how they can be trusted with power.
In the same issue of The Bulwark, Charlie Sykes wrote that “Historians should note that the party that lost control of the House brought popcorn to the ceremony. The party that ‘won’ blew itself up. And then did it again. And again. And then left for a night of pizza, bitterness, and recriminations. Meanwhile, the MAGA crackup accelerated as crackpots fought with nihilists, wingnuts pointed fingers at extremists, and grifters started slap-fights with one another.” As I was writing this post last night, the House had just voted 216-214 to adjourn. It literally came down to the last vote, which was “Aye.” They couldn’t even agree on going to sleep last night.”
And then, Rich Lowry, editor of the right-wing National Review, wrote for Politico readers, that no one should count Marjorie Traitor Greene out of the speakership race and that the whole sordid episode is just “another indication that the GOP lacks any coherent center of authority, and is a party that, to some significant extent, loathes itself… The tea party brought an infusion of new blood with only an attenuated connection to the party and often a hostile attitude toward it— it was the tea party members who made Speaker John Boehner’s life miserable, and its left-over rump is making would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s life miserable. Finally, Donald Trump blew up whatever was left of the party establishment in 2016. Notably, Trump became the party leader by not being a party man. He was barely a Republican when he started out, and it seems likely that if he is denied the Republican nomination in 2024, he will do everything to sabotage its prospects. It’s hard to think of a former president who has been less invested in his party’s interests, and many Republicans are fine with that.”
No one is in charge. Mitch McConnell is the closest there is to the ballast of an establishment, but he’s hated by the MAGA base. Trump’s bid to create his own counter-establishment faltered badly with his midterm debacle. Even the voices on the right with the biggest media megaphones haven’t been able to cow the anti-McCarthy rebels.
The fact is that an anti-authority spirit pervades a portion of the party, and the authority it opposes is that of its own side.
Kevin McCarthy is not a visionary or inspirational leader, and has been around Washington a long time, but his fundamental offense for his enemies is seeking to be speaker. By the usual calculus, the absence of on obvious alternative to McCarthy would militate against opposing him. But, given the attitude of many of the rebels, this makes it an even purer exercise— an act of defiance unburdened by a substantive agenda or a different candidate.
Ordinarily, threatening the leadership bid of a member of your own party is a means to an end. It is true that the anti-McCarthy faction has made procedural demands, and gotten many of them. But, at the end of the day, its opposition feels more like an end than a means.
The old GOP “obstructionism” was directed at the agenda of the other party for deep-seated ideological reasons; the new GOP obstructionism is directed at itself as it tries— and, for now, fails— to undertake the most basic act of governance.
Dan Balz quoted Karl Rove: “The fact they are driven to nominate Byron Donalds, an unremarkable sophomore, is a sign of incompetence, stupidity and absurdness of all this. This is not a serious exercise. It is an infantile temper tantrum.” Balz viewed this mess from a centrist perch, not a right-wing perspective like Charen, Lowry and Sykes. In his analysis last night for the Washington Post he looked at the chaos and dysfunction and warned of trouble ahead, beyond a speaker’s election likely to be resolved on GOP Day (January 6). “The problems have been building for years. Now they have been exposed for all to see— to see just how broken the GOP has become. When a new speaker is chosen, McCarthy or someone else, that person will enter the office weakened and compromised, presiding over a majority that is not just fragile but also highly volatile… The power of the Freedom Caucus rebels, who have demonstrated an insatiable appetite to claim power and extract concessions, means that even the most basic but essential functions of Congress— among them passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling limit to cover previously authorized spending— will be difficult to achieve… Performative politics have become more appealing (and often more rewarding, in terms of fame and campaign contributions) than working in the trenches to produce results.”
The House has become its own special petri dish, breeding the most virulent strain of what ails the broader party. Two days of ballots that showed the competing factions dug in against one another have given the American people an unsatisfying opening look at what the newly elected House majority is about.
The party as a whole has been torn apart by a variety of factors that have been at work for more than a decade, the rise of the tea party and the grass-roots rebellion against the GOP establishment that shaped the 2010 midterm elections to the destructive impact of Trump and the corresponding estrangement with longtime allies in big business to the weakness of elected officials to stand up against the worst influences threatening the party’s long-term health.
Speaking on the House floor in support of McCarthy on Wednesday, Republican Kat Cammack of Florida said the last thing the American people need “is uncertainty in this chamber.” Everything in the first two days of the new Congress suggests uncertainty will be the underlying theme for the next two years, to the potential detriment of the millions of people in both parties who expect their elected officials to govern effectively and collectively.