Kevin McCarthy and the Republicans’ Rocky Road Ahead

The simplest thing, usually, for a new congressional majority to do is elect a Speaker of the House. Often, the choice has been made in advance: the candidate grins, the chyron gives the tally, a press conference announcing the legislative agenda awaits. This month, the House Republicans, who won a slim majority in November, took fifteen votes and nearly a week to settle on Kevin McCarthy, even though he has led the Party since 2019 and had no serious opponent. The holdouts were about twenty members of the Party’s far-right wing, but, even as each vote ended and the next one began, no one really seemed able to say what the conflict was about. John James, whose election in November made him the first Black Republican to represent Michigan in Congress, and who supported McCarthy, pointed out that the last time it had taken so many votes to pick a Speaker was in 1856. “The issues today are over a few rules and personalities,” James said. “While the issues at that time were about slavery and whether the value of a man who looks like me was sixty per cent or a hundred per cent of a human being.”

The dividing line between the large number of Republicans backing McCarthy and the smaller, obstinate group standing in his way wasn’t exactly ideological. Each camp included some of the prominent election deniers of the House Freedom Caucus. Ohio’s Jim Jordan, long one of the most prominent hardliners, was in position to chair the Judiciary Committee, and had allied with McCarthy; so had the Georgia conspiracist Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had reportedly been promised a top committee assignment. The rebels included the Stop the Steal stalwarts Paul Gosar and Scott Perry, as well as the media-focussed right-wingers: Lauren Boebert, of Colorado, who faced calls to be stripped of committee assignments after making anti-Muslim slurs about her Democratic colleague Ilhan Omar; and Matt Gaetz, of Florida, who has been the subject of a federal investigation for sex trafficking but has not faced any charges. Up close, the distinction between these factions sometimes collapsed into personal grievances or turf war. The most dramatic moment came when the McCarthy ally Mike Rogers, of Alabama, lunged toward Gaetz, and was physically restrained. Only later did Politico report that Gaetz had been lobbying to run a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which Rogers was set to chair.

This mess of personality conflicts and power struggles reflects a core Republican problem right now. The style of the Party is thoroughly Trumpist, and yet its agenda is no longer defined by Trump’s specific fixations and fights. Before the fourth vote, the former President issued a statement urging all Republicans to support McCarthy; that failed to move anyone. In the final phase, Greene got Trump on speakerphone and tried to persuade one holdout, Montana’s Matt Rosendale, to talk with him. Rosendale, who is enough of a Trump stalwart that he had voted against awarding a Gold Medal to the police officers who defended the Capitol on January 6th, just waved Greene and the former President away.

In many ways, the G.O.P. has underprepared for the post-Trump era. In 2020, Republicans declined to put forward any formal platform, and they went light on policy in the 2022 midterm campaigns, hoping instead that a reaction against economic inflation and President Biden’s unpopularity would sweep them to big majorities. Even Newt Gingrich, interviewed in the Times this month, drew a pointed distinction between the Republican insurgents whom he organized around the Contract with America, in 1994, and the current generation. “We weren’t just grandstanders. We were purposeful,” Gingrich said. (He also accused Gaetz of “essentially bringing ‘Lord of the Flies’ to the House of Representatives.”) In addition to a murky agenda, the Republicans have a weak leader in McCarthy, who is neither especially well known among his party’s voters nor especially well liked by them. A Monmouth poll last month found that just twenty-nine per cent of Republicans approved of McCarthy, twenty per cent disapproved, and about half had no opinion.

Against this backdrop, the way that McCarthy eventually won over his opponents may provide a clue to how he will operate. Mostly, he traded leverage away for support. He agreed to lower the threshold for replacing a Speaker, and to keep a McCarthy-aligned super PAC from picking sides in Republican primaries. Substantively, he agreed to establish a new select subcommittee on the “weaponization” of the federal government which Jordan is expected to lead, and is likely to begin with investigations into the Obama-era classified documents that recently turned up in an office that President Biden had used and at his home. (The new Speaker has also agreed to consider formally expunging Trump’s impeachment.) More ominously, McCarthy agreed not to raise the debt ceiling without extracting offsetting spending cuts. That concession suggests that the House’s year, which seems set to start with investigations into Hunter Biden and border policy, may be punctuated with a standoff over the debt ceiling, in which Republicans threaten to default on the government’s debt in the name of small-government principle. And he gave opponents the committee seats they wanted. Fox News asked Byron Donalds, a second-term Black congressman from Florida, whom the insurgents had repeatedly nominated for Speaker, “What did you get?” The answer was a spot on the Party’s steering committee. Gaetz said that the opposition to McCarthy’s election stopped because “we ran out of stuff to ask for.”

If this is, in fact, how the new Speaker has to govern, by cutting individual deals in order to preserve his majority, then his tenure is likely to move from crisis to crisis and may well be short. Already there are little fires everywhere in the caucus: some moderates have balked at the concessions made to the Gaetz faction, at the possibility that McCarthy’s debt-ceiling commitments will mean sharp defense cuts, and even at the caucus’s extreme line on abortion, which South Carolina’s Nancy Mace, a McCarthy ally, denounced as “tone deaf.” The main preoccupation of McCarthy’s first week as Speaker was the case of the freshman Representative George Santos, of New York, who, in his bid for office, appears to have made up just about every element of his biography: a sterling business record, Jewish heritage, even a star turn on the Baruch College volleyball team. (He was also wanted for fraud in Brazil.) Both the Nassau County G.O.P. and the five other freshman Republicans from New York have called for him to resign, but not McCarthy, whom Santos supported and who doesn’t have the margin to cut loose even an obvious liability. It might seem like good news for Democrats that the Republican leadership is this weak—except that weak Republican leadership is what paved the way for Trump in the first place. ♦

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