Kevin McCarthy’s Speakership battle: The blind fighting the blind – The Hill

Blinds Weightlifting

Just when you thought the Republican Party hit a new low, the current crowd manages to crash through into an even lower low. The battle over House Speaker is a remarkable case of every actor making practically every wrong move — and they are now stuck in a practically unsolvable political mess.  

Fortunately for the country — and for Republicans — the House of Representatives could stay in disarray for weeks without any material effect on the nation, save perhaps for the WWE losing viewers to this far-superior intraparty wrestling show. 

Bitter harvest of non-leadership 

The roots of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s problem go back to the 2022 midterms. The main problem is the narrowness of the GOP’s majority. What McCarthy (R-Calif.) is experiencing is what parliamentary democracies experience regularly — small factions holding the difference between the majority and the minority. In Europe and Israel, small parties have long held disproportionate power over government by holding the balance of power. (McCarthy’s mess is a cautionary tale for those in the political science community who prefer proportionate parliamentary systems to the American system: When politics is fractured, no structure can fix things.) 

But that narrow Republican majority is partly of McCarthy’s making. He spent 2022 trying to back into the Speaker’s chair. The House GOP — and Republicans in general — did little to put forth an affirmative agenda. While Democrats were on the counterattack and had some coherent issue plans, McCarthy wanted to coast on the historic midterm dynamic. 

To be fair to McCarthy, the GOP is seriously fractured, and he has had to navigate around the ever-unpredictable, hyper-sensitive Donald Trump. But winning politics is not accomplished by timidly tiptoeing to Election Day. McCarthy should have brushed up on his history. 

In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon had a massive polling lead over Hubert Humphrey and the splintered Democrats. Nixon figured he would play keep-away and back into the White House. But Humphrey broke with President Lyndon Johnson on the Vietnam War. Striking out on his own, Humphrey almost won in what would have been a huge upset. Nixon won, but his near miss hobbled him politically for much of his first term, and arguably helped set the stage for Watergate. 

Just like Nixon, McCarthy failed to lead in the 2022 midterms. The result was a disappointing 222 seats in a year when Republicans should have elected 230 to 245 members. With a disappointing election and a narrow majority, McCarthy came into his leadership fight with little margin for error. 

The delusional caucus 

The GOP’s Freedom Caucus is aptly named — that is, if they mean freedom from reality.

It’s one thing to represent your district and cast conservative votes, or even to press for some concessions on legislation and power within the House. But it’s an entirely different thing to demand the wholesale adoption of your agenda when you are out of step with the broader public and your own caucus. 

The Freedom Caucus is apparently oblivious to election results, too, as the public clearly did not give them a mandate on Election Day. Not only did Republicans barely scrape into the majority, but several very conservative candidates failed to hold seats with GOP incumbents — something that should never happen in a first midterm for the party not holding the White House. 

Some of these members are not even really in touch with their own districts. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) barely won reelection in a district tailor-made for a Republican, yet she is one of the loudest absolutist conservatives. Her actions are not surprising. Of all the epithets hurled her way, “intelligent” has never been one of them. Even more shocking is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) opposing the Freedom Caucus and being called a “voice of reason.”

Each member of Congress has every right to represent their constituents — that’s why it’s called the House of Representatives. And those constituents may be very much out of the mainstream of American politics. But Freedom Caucus members are heedless to the 400 other districts and their constituents, and that isn’t going to work. 

Republican comedy of bad politics 

With the stage set for a collision, both sides have managed to make just about every bad move possible. A weak leader comes off a disappointing election and faces a group of dissidents with oversized expectations of a size large enough to deny a majority. 

Going into negotiations, the primary blame lay on McCarthy for his leadership failure in the midterms. But that was quickly overtaken by his opponents, who pressed for a laundry list of concessions. There’s nothing wrong with starting big, but the way forward for any splinter group is to get what you can and stick to the deal. McCarthy’s opponents, in contrast, want everything.

Now the holdouts have nowhere to go, and there are 200 or so other Republicans who are not exactly keen on ceding power to a recalcitrant 20. Every concession McCarthy makes risks a revolt among his own vote base. And that vote base has had enough of their colleagues. 

McCarthy is now stuck with two paths forward: Either keep voting and try to exhaust his opponents, or counter the holdouts’ game of chicken with his own — take all concessions off the table and threaten to freeze them out.

It seems hard to see how there is a compromise that puts McCarthy in the Speaker’s chair, given the bitterness and how loudly and publicly his opponents have behaved. Without concessions McCarthy cannot make, his opponents would be humiliated if they climbed down. Perhaps there are some cosmetic face-saving possibilities, but McCarthy cannot lose more than four votes, and that’s a tough order. 

The big losers in this debacle are the Freedom Caucus holdouts. They may well sink McCarthy, but they have engendered a great deal of bitterness from most of their colleagues. If McCarthy quits the race, his supporters are likely to consider that to be concession enough, so the Freedom Caucus members will be back to square one regarding the caucus power structure. In addition, they have lost support in the conservative media, and any potential 2024 primary opponents could get some traction from that. 

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And the Freedom Caucus is going to have to vote for whoever the rest of the Republican caucus puts up for Speaker. If they drag this out and force a deal with the Democrats, or try to cut one of their own, they will take the blame for handing power to the likes of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and “the squad.” After all, the Democrats are absolutely united; no Democrat will help elect any Republican as Speaker without approval from their own leadership and, thus, substantive concessions to the Democratic caucus. 

Entering into 2022, Republicans were set up for a big year; an upset win in the Virginia gubernatorial race, an unpopular President Biden and historic trends all pointed toward a GOP sweep. But too many in the Republican Party don’t understand the basics of politics, and now they are paying the price.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

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