It’s hard to think of a better term than “destructionists” for the dozen or so House Freedom Caucus members determined to block McCarthy from becoming speaker. Unlike their Tea Party predecessors a decade ago who made life miserable — and short — for two previous Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, McCarthy’s enemies aren’t driven by a desire for aggressive conservative policy reforms. They want to blow things up. They want McCarthy’s scalp. And the narrow Republican margin in the House makes it extremely difficult for anyone to stop them.
Boehner and Ryan didn’t exactly have a walk in the park when they were leading the GOP caucus. Both presided over periods of chaos and government shutdowns. But for as much of a headache as the Tea Party radicals could be, their primary goal was cutting spending, a demand that could at least plausibly be satisfied (and was eventually imposed as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act in the form of so-called budget sequestration that cut billions of dollars in federal spending).
McCarthy was always going to have a harder time winning the gavel than Boehner or Ryan because the nature of Republican radicalism has shifted over the years — especially the Trump years — in a way that make it all but impossible to mollify. The members most publicly eager to thwart McCarthy are those such as Reps. Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, MAGA celebrities who were elected to Congress during Trump’s tenure and like to emulate his style. His example taught them that fomenting chaos and putting personal vendettas above policy goals will make you a social media star and guarantee that you’re the center of attention. So that’s what they’re doing.
After attempting a brief display of independence following the November elections, McCarthy realized he couldn’t muster the votes for the speakership and soon caved to many of the Freedom Caucus’s demands. Most are intended to weaken his power and give the radical fringe more control over his fate. Late last week, McCarthy reportedly succumbed to demands to reduce the threshold it would take to force a floor vote to fire him. This still didn’t satisfy his critics. How could it? Making peace with McCarthy would shift the spotlight somewhere else.
Most House Republicans are incensed at the black eye their party is suffering during what is supposed to be a moment of triumph. But with a handful of exceptions like Greene, they’re too frightened to say so publicly. As an anonymous Republican House member groused to CNN, “None of the demands these holdouts are making regard policy that affects your life. Their demands are purely inside baseball, procedural trickery that no one in America gives a damn about, but that might give these few loudmouths just a little bit more of the attention and power they crave.” Voters across the country just turned back a red wave because they were tired of Republican radicalism. Nothing about the new Congress’s chaotic opening suggests that the party is likely to win back their confidence anytime soon.
Over the weekend, McCarthy tried to bluster his way into the speaker’s job. His allies leaked to reporters that he intends to “fight it out on the floor” for as many rounds of voting as it takes to win a majority. Apparently, the idea is that his oppressors will eventually become embarrassed, worry about their reputations and grudgingly accede to his victory. “I’ve earned this goddamn job!” McCarthy reportedly thundered at a private caucus meeting Monday morning.
Only he hadn’t: He promptly lost, as of this writing, two votes in rapid succession.
Unless something changes soon, it could yet fall to Greene to administer another dose of truth and inform McCarthy that he isn’t going to get it.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Nancy Pelosi Is the Greatest Speaker Ever: Jonathan Bernstein
• The Business Lobby Doesn’t Need Kevin McCarthy: Julianna Goldman
• Stop Blaming and Start Governing: Michael R. Bloomberg
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joshua Green is a National Correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency.”
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