Here’s the problem for Democrats, who have been watching gleefully from the sidelines as the House Republican caucus self-destructs. Kevin McCarthy, the speaker who was ousted on Tuesday after a rebellion by a populist, hard-right faction within the GOP, was certainly no ally to Democrats or the causes they support. But that’s not why he was booted. He was ousted for the sin of working with Democrats on a spending bill to avert a government shutdown for 45 days. By joining with the hard right to defenestrate McCarthy days later, instead of voting “present” as a way to indirectly help McCarthy keep the gavel, members of the minority party may make it even less likely they’ll have any clout in the future.
That’s not to say Democrats are responsible for the turmoil among Republicans, who are paying the price of having stoked right-wing grievance politics for so long. McCarthy himself, who voted against certifying the 2020 election results, minimized the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, and launched a bogus impeachment inquiry against President Biden, has been a part of the problem, and there’s a certain measure of poetic justice in the fact that the populist wing he coddled turned against him in the end. Had the party not emboldened people like Representative Matt Gaetz for so long, it’s possible they wouldn’t have been quite so — well, so emboldened.
But while Democrats won’t miss him, McCarthy’s replacement could easily be worse — and will have seen what fate awaits GOP speakers who dare to advance legislation palatable to Democrats. It will not be any sort of victory if the new speaker drives the government into a shutdown, as Gaetz and his allies seem to want, or leans even harder into populism and wedge social issues.
Of course, the primary responsibility for averting that outcome now belongs to the Republicans choosing McCarthy’s successor. The more pragmatic members of the caucus — the ones who voted with Democrats to keep the government open for 45 days — should by this point understand that there’s no placating the hard right. McCarthy himself seemed to realize that before his ouster, saying, “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down.” One can argue how new the concept really is, but McCarthy was right that some members of the GOP caucus simply reject the basic notion of governing. In selecting a new speaker, pragmatic Republicans who want to take back their party can’t make yet more concessions to the hard right and expect the next speakership to play out any differently than McCarthy’s did.
But in some scenarios, there could be a role for Democrats in settling the speaker’s race, especially if the Republican factions remain at loggerheads. One would be to strategically vote “present” to boost a more moderate figure who didn’t vote against certifying the election results, or to cut some kind of deal with pragmatic Republicans for a European-style coalition government. Those are all long shot, extremely unlikely scenarios with no precedent in American history. But then again, deposing a speaker was also unprecedented, until it happened. Democrats shouldn’t categorically rule out such deals if they would sideline extremists and keep the government running.
If all else fails, of course, there is one other way that Democrats could settle the speaker’s race: They could lure vulnerable GOP incumbents to switch parties or become independents, or work out a deal where Republicans vote present to elect a Democratic speaker. Party switches that change control of a chamber of Congress are rare but not unprecedented: In 2001, Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent, throwing control of the body to Democrats.
Any such scenario is extremely unlikely. But nothing about the current Congress is normal. Democrats took a bit of a risk by letting McCarthy be deposed by his fellow Republicans; if they have the opportunity in the days ahead to steer the chamber away from the kind of extremism embodied by Republicans like Gaetz, they shouldn’t be afraid to use it.
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