The turmoil of House Republicans, divided by factions and feuds and played out before the public, shows a party’s inability to govern at a time when America’s commitments are tested abroad, and while a government shutdown looms in just five weeks.
While Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu and arch-rival Benny Gantz have formed a wartime unity government, as was effectively the case in World War II when Franklin Roosevelt invited GOP luminaries Henry Stimson and Frank Knox to take top posts, Republicans in the “peoples House” cannot even pick a Speaker from their own ranks.
They are the confirmation of an axiom made famous by Lyndon Johnson: “Any jackass can kick a barn down. But it takes a carpenter to build one.” LBJ said that without ever having met Newt Gingrich or Tim Eyman.
The far-right deposed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy for daring to agree on a continuing resolution which kept the federal government going for less than two months. The caucus failed to support Rep. Steve Scalise as his successor, even though the staunchly conservative Louisiana Republican once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage.” (Duke is a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.)
The far right’s candidate is Rep. Jim Jordan, the screechy chairman of a committee investigating impeachment of President Biden, and one who defied a subpoena from the committee investigating the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection. “The people want Jim Jordan,” messaged deposed Fox Business host Lou Dobbs. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, opined: “My philosophy in political endorsements is to support the strongest conservative who can win. That is Jim Jordan.”
As ex-Rep. Liz Cheney, stalwart conservative, points out: “Jim Jordan was involved in Trump’s conspiracy to steal the election and seize power. He urged Pence to refuse to count lawful electoral votes . . . They’ll lose the House majority and deserve to.”
Jordan, a founder of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus and fixture on Fox News, was nominated for Speaker by the House Republican Caucus late on Friday afternoon. But he received only 121 votes in a 221-member caucus, with 60 Republican lawmakers saying by secret ballot they would not vote to elect him Speaker.
Democrats might cheer the impasse, except that they have a program to sell while the Republican Party comes apart. With the danger of another Trump candidacy looming, the D’s under Biden must try to focus the country’s attention on jobs being created and goals achieved thanks to the infrastructure package, the CHIPS bill, and the Inflation Reduction Act. The Northwest has just been picked for a $1.1 billion investment as one of seven nationwide hubs for clean hydrogen.
Still, the Republicans are a spectacle. The monolithic conservative media is even fraying. Ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich has demanded on Fox News that Rep. Matt Gaetz, who kicked McCarthy’s barn down, be thrown out of the Republican Caucus. Talk show host Mark Levin depicts Gaetz as a traitor “working with the Marxists in the Democratic Party” and condemns Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, as an attention-seeking opportunist. Meantime, Fox News host Laura Ingraham hosted Gaetz the night of McCarthy’s ouster and advises: “Gaetz was BRILLIANT in taking out McCarthy. Genius!”
The implosion of the Republican Party is rooted in several factors. The first is strident media on the right, starting with Rush Limbaugh in the early Clinton years, followed by Fox News in the late 1990s and a proliferation of hosts. All have competed in a niche market aimed at the angry and resentful. The market was mobilized and deployed in the Republican House takeovers of the “Gingrich Revolution” in 1994 and the Tea Baggers “shellacking” (Obama’s rueful word) of the Democrats in 2010.
What followed was a divergence that continues to this day. Given majorities, the party’s establishment conservatives have wanted to govern along traditional lines by cutting social programs and environmental regulations to the bone while showering tax breaks on the rich. (They’ve succeeded on the latter count.)
To achieve ratings, however, the talk show hosts need to keep listeners/viewers mad, tuned in, and boosting the ratings. Hence, they come down hard on any effort to work out society’s compromises and emphasized dog whistle cultural issues. Right-leaning media killed a 2007 immigration reform package that passed the Senate by a 68-30 vote.
The Republican leadership was known for using money as a cudgel in enforcing obedience. Money could seed candidacies of establishment conservatives, for example contributions from Simpson Timber executives that used to show up early in this state’s campaigns. Money could also be withheld as punishment. Control the money and you could control the members, as demonstrated by the powerful PAC of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
The rise of conservative media and 24/7 news cycles have allowed Congress’ empty drums to bang loudly. The Internet has become the vehicle for reaping a harvest of dollars. Fundraising letters used to require volunteers. Staff would be pressed into fundraising parties over stale pizza. Nowadays, all you must do is push a finger and the email appeal goes across the country.
Making noise has become a key to campaign bucks. Look at the millions raised by conspiracy promoter Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia, or the bankrolling of failed House hopeful Joe Kent in this state. During debate over McCarthy’s ouster, colleagues bitterly complained that Gaetz, Mace, and Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, were sending out a blizzard of fundraising appeals quoting their rhetoric on the House floor.
The Republican base has also been radicalized. They’ve raged at social change, which conservatives’ election victories have failed to roll back. The Equal Rights Amendment was blocked, but there are now 23 women members of the Senate and three on the Supreme Court. Marriage equality has become the law of the land, with job discrimination against gays and lesbians curtailed, thanks to support coming from millennials and Generation Z.
If you want to witness the anger, buy a ticket to the Snohomish County Republicans’ Lincoln Day Dinner or watch the speakers being brought in to address King County Republicans. Covering the 2012 race for Governor, I watched GOP nominee, Attorney General Rob McKenna, consigned to the role of warmup speaker while a radio talk show host was the main event.
Of course, Trump fans the flames of this right-wing radicalism, with his conspiracy charges and his coup attempt, as well as rhetoric that is increasingly violent. He hauls in millions, even using fundraising blasts to deliver threats to those who don’t pony up.
Trump has talked about charging MSNBC with “treason,” likewise just retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. At his civil trial for business fraud, he has called New York AG Letitia James a “political animal,” Judge Arthur Engoron a “rogue,” and slandered the judge’s law clerk by describing her as Sen. Chuck Schumer’s “girl friend.”
Trump has shown his clout at the ballot box, as MAGA Republicans win GOP primaries, only often to lose in the general election. (A pair of GOP crazies have just announced for winnable Senate seats in Arizona and Michigan.). But to cross the aisle on votes among House Republicans is to risk being “primaried” as was GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in this state last year. The polarization of America’s electorate is reflected in the gerrymandering of House district boundaries, such that only about 45 seats in “the peoples’ House” are now truly competitive.
As House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy made ceaseless concessions, starting with his trip to Mar-a-Lago days after the January 6, 2021 insurrection, by which Trump was anointed party leader. Speaker McCarthy gave wacko-birds seats on the House Rules Committee, giving Jim Jordan an impeachment platform. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff was thrown off the House Intelligence Committee.
Being a pander bear to the radical right was to no avail. Each concession led to an additional and more outrageous demand from the far right. Each example of pandering brought renewed discontent to 18 Republican House members whose districts (largely in New York and California) voted in 2020 for Joe Biden.
The spectacle in Washington, D.C., should not turn off reasonable people of all stripes. Quite the contrary: they need engage and reengage. Attempts to hijack the country have been turned back before by principled folk in both parties, witness the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and McCarthyism in the 1950s.
We have a republic to preserve, if we can keep it.