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The House Republicans’ Reckoning Was Long Overdue
You can only kick the can down the road so far before you run out of road.
TOM EMMER’S FOUR-HOUR RUN as the Republican nominee for speaker of the House yesterday (3/200ths of a Scaramucci, for those counting at home) will be remembered, if it is remembered at all, as one of the final gasps in the long overdue reckoning that has been coming for leaders of a bygone Republican party.
For about a decade and a half now the governing wing of the party has attempted every strategy imaginable to delay handing congressional leadership power to the group of lawmakers who better represent the desires of today’s GOP voters—the erstwhile renegades the late John McCain dubbed “wacko birds.” That group has grown from only a handful of troublemakers to a significant bloc of Congress that’s bolstered by an additional group of “closet normals” who dress in wacko bird costumes for the retweets.
Throughout this period, Republican congressional leaders have taken whatever steps they thought necessary to accommodate and placate these members as long as they could retain what they saw as the real power—leadership posts, committee assignments, big-donor private jet rides—for themselves.
Among the many lowlights of this long-running spectacle of appeasement: engaging in wildly irresponsible brinkmanship, granting plum committee assignments to kooks, submitting to power-sharing arrangements and hosting struggle sessions with the House Freedom Caucus, launching sham impeachment inquiries, holding umpty-nine explicitly political hearings over a deadly embassy attack, flying down to an extremely dated South Florida resort to take degrading pictures with a wannabe authoritarian, defending a drag queen fabulist in their ranks, and, most egregiously, agreeing to be complicit in an attempt to overthrow our democracy to soothe the bruised ego of the man-baby-in-chief.
It’s been a parade of humiliations for the Old Guard and the Young Guns of the GOP leadership—but worth it for them so long as it achieved their goal of keeping members of their ilk in the big-boy chairs. They knew that they couldn’t control their right flank and weren’t really in charge of the direction of the party. But they figured that they could maintain their titles and influence in large part because the bomb throwers and nihilists didn’t actually want the responsibility of governing.
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Which meant that so long as the Republican leaders kept giving inch after inch after inch on the Fox outrage du jour, they could avoid an intraparty coup and retain power—until some glorious day in the future when sanity would return and their torment at the hands of these nutjobs would be over.
It wasn’t a totally irrational approach. Maybe one day this too would pass . . . right?
There’s a reason people delay dealing with conflict: Sometimes it works. And for the Boehners and Cantors and Ryans and McCarthys, it basically did, for a while. I mean, let’s be serious, the delay-and-accommodate strategy kept My Kevin in charge looooonnnngggg past the sell-by date for that blow-dried empty suit. It is pretty remarkable when you consider that the same cadre of guys managed to maintain a hold on the leadership of a party that has been moving away from them for a dozen years. (And over in the Senate, Mitch is still hanging on with much the same approach.)
So, in one sense that’s a pretty good track record of can kicking. But unfortunately for these guys their future isn’t the one that Dr. Emmett Brown promised.
Eventually you run out of road.
THE OTHER DAY I was texting with Michael Wood, who ran a principled congressional campaign as an anti-Trump Republican in Texas a few years back. He was pointing to the problem that faced Republican candidates these days.
“There is only so much tap dancing you can do on MAGA and Trump,” he said. “It’s either the full Liz [Cheney] or the full Newsmax and everyone has to choose eventually.”
We can quibble about what constitutes “the full Newsmax.” From my vantage point McCarthy went full Newsmax the minute he voted to overturn the 2020 election. But others would argue he was still tap dancing along the edge, cutting a few deals with the Democrats and acting with a modicum of responsibility once he took the gavel.
But the broader point about the nature of the incentives in the Trump-era GOP and where things are headed is exactly right.
Neither Donald Trump nor the MAGA media that is his imitators’ lifeblood acts from a set of principles. They have ideological instincts and base desires, but they don’t have tangible objectives they are trying to achieve through the legislative process. At least none that they care about enough to wheel and deal over.
If they did, the fight for the House speakership would not have dragged on for weeks. The “Crazy 8” would have a list of demands and some ambitious establishment type would agree to them in exchange for a speaker’s portrait.
But that’s not what is happening here. It was reported yesterday that Gaetz was whipping for Emmer, a candidate who was ideologically indistinguishable from McCarthy—the man Gaetz gutted just to show that he could.
This behavior is just the latest bit of evidence that the MAGA movement is based not on policy but on domination. As my colleague Jonathan V. Last has written, at its core MAGA has a Leninist objective: power. Who will overtake whom?
When you know that that is the central question—when you know that one side is willing even to threaten democracy itself to win the power struggle—eventually you reach a point where there is no middle ground left.
Hence Wood’s insight: If the fundamental fissure is over power—who has it, who doesn’t—you eventually come to a point where you have to choose a side.
Do I want them to have power or don’t I? Newsmax or Cheney? Accommodation or resistance? Autocracy or democracy?
The natural end state for the GOP is to have a speaker for whom these questions don’t need to be tap-danced around—someone who is on board with the MAGA-supremacism objective and not at all interested in “working with the other side to get things done” or “doing the business of the people’s house” or any of the other Tip O’Neill-era bromides that Republican base voters couldn’t care less about.
Whether that end state will come in this fight remains to be seen. Maybe these guys have gotten so sick of kicking themselves in the dick over and over again for the last three weeks that they’ll settle for a clean-cut insurrectionist like Mike Johnson who knows how to play ball with the establishment but is one step closer to the MAGAtonic ideal. Or maybe the fight will drag on longer.
But whether it’s this week or next week or next year, eventually the can they’ve been kicking will reach its MAGA destination.