Matt Gaetz pulled the alarm but, unlike the stunt by fellow House member Jamaal Bowman, there really was a fire. Gaetz set it himself, with help from seven other Republicans on the party’s populist right. Now the whole party has to deal with the smoking ruins.
Because the majority party has only a slim edge, any small, cohesive group among them can wield huge leverage. They can threaten to sink legislation or oust the Speaker by voting “no,” knowing their party doesn’t have enough votes to carry the day without them (or help from Democrats).
That’s exactly what this “veto coalition,” led by Florida’s Matt Gaetz, did. When they issued the threat to close the government a few days ago, the tactic failed, but only because Democrats voted with most of the Republicans to keep it open. Why did Democrats help? Because the White House told them to, knowing the president would pay a political price if the government shut down, even temporarily. That’s why Biden’s White House wanted the Continuing Resolution (CR) passed.
When Speaker Kevin McCarthy called a floor vote on the CR, the right wing of his caucus was outraged, partly because McCarthy called their bluff, partly because they didn’t get the concessions they wanted.
The vote Tuesday to remove McCarthy as speaker was the populist right’s revenge. They secured only eight Republican votes against McCarthy, but that was enough. It is also a backhanded compliment to McCarthy’s Democratic predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, that she managed her caucus successfully with an equally narrow majority.
Make no mistake: the entire Republican Party will pay an enormous price for this maneuver. It’s one thing to remove a speaker; it’s another to remove him without no obvious way to resolve the resulting impasse. Each day it lasts tells American voters, “Republicans don’t know how to govern.” They know how to use a bullhorn. They know how to stop legislation. They know how to jettison a speaker. But they don’t know how to pass legislation or find a new speaker. That’s a disastrous message to send voters.
As the Republican House majority confronts this mess, they have only two conceivable paths to end it by selecting a speaker. Given their narrow majority, they need first, a candidate who wins virtually the votes in the Republican caucus and could be elected without any Democratic votes, and second, a candidate who wins a large plurality of votes in the caucus and becomes speaker because enough Democrats help them in the floor vote, either by voting with the Republicans or remaining absent.
There are formidable roadblocks on both paths, which is why Gaetz’s move to dump McCarthy was the legislative equivalent of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” Or, to put it in a more American idiom, it was dumber than a bag of hammers.
To see why it was such a futile, theatrical gesture, let’s consider each path. In the first one, Republicans settle on a candidate with near unanimity. That won’t happen, or at least not very soon. If it happens at all, it will occur only after days of building pressure from Republican voters and donors — and the party’s leading presidential candidate. Even then, the party might not converge on a unity candidate. Remember, moderates in the caucus can do exactly what Gaetz and his seven colleagues did; they can serve as a “veto coalition.”
In blocking candidates, these representatives on the center-right wouldn’t be acting simply for spite. Over a dozen of them won in districts carried by Joe Biden. They fear any close association with the party’s right wing would sink them in 2024. Kevin McCarthy understood their dilemma, which is why he refused to give in to Gaetz earlier.
What about the second path, the one in which a Republican retains the speaker’s gavel thanks to some Democratic votes or abstentions? That could happen, but it would come with two major consequences. First, it would leave Gaetz’s faction exactly where they were before driving out McCarthy. Their motto is “Damn this party for doing deals with Democrats.” Indeed, McCarthy himself might return. The other consequence is that Democrats wouldn’t provide their votes for free. They would demand concessions. Whatever price the new speaker paid would infuriate some members of his caucus. That’s one reason the victor might keep those terms secret, as some allege McCarthy did to secure Democratic votes for the CR.
Who loses in the mess? The whole country loses because its government is dysfunctional. The Republicans lose because they set the fire and can’t extinguish it. The Democrats win. They can advertise themselves as the party of stability and continuity, while Republicans are erecting a huge sign with the message, “We can grumble but we can’t govern.”
That message is a gift to Democrats, who are going into the next election with a sluggish economy, inflation, an open border, urban decay and an aged president. Biden’s unpopularity is surpassed only by his vice president. They needed a gift. And Matt Gaetz gave them a big one.