The Blowback from the Throwdown
The Quixotic Caucus's fight will reverberate for years for both parties
Besides the immediate, obvious effects in the current Congress from the epic fight between the establishment and the Quixotic Caucus over Kevin McCarthy’s election as Speaker, like the new rules and ensconcing members of the Freedom Caucus on the powerful Rules Committee, there’s likely to be blowback from the throw down that will reverberate through both parties for decades.
First and foremost, it provides a model for progressives to wrangle concessions out of their leadership. While this may not happen anytime soon - right now, the far left doesn’t nearly have the influence of the Freedom Caucus - they’ve been given a detailed roadmap on how to get there, and they’re clearly trying. For several cycles now, they’ve been putting up more progressive candidates against incumbents and against leadership-recruited candidates in competitive districts. That strategy, as was to be expected, has met with mixed results for them, as it has for those on the right. If they instead move towards doing what the Freedom Caucus has been doing for years - recruiting candidates in safe, open seats, making their victory a fait accompli - they’ll boost their numbers much more rapidly. It doesn’t generate as many headlines as ousting incumbents, but it’s a safer way to swell their numbers. For now, though, they’re not quite there yet, and that’s for a number of reasons.
For one, they just don’t have the numbers to sink their own party’s Speaker nominee and wrangle concessions. That’s not because the Democratic caucus and Democratic leadership is dominated by ideological moderates; that may have been true in the Clinton years, back when Dick Gephardt ran things, but it’s just not anymore, and it hasn’t been for a while. While Nancy Pelosi certainly represented the Democratic establishment, she was hardly some moderate: In fact, amusingly enough, the conservative Heritage Action For America rates her as more liberal than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as does the AFL-CIO on the flip side. The new House Democratic Leader, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, sits squarely in the same liberal space as Nancy Pelosi according to both organizations.
That’s interesting, because some actual moderate Democrats - like my own Congresman, Jared Golden - weren’t willing to vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, but had no problem sticking with Hakeem Jeffries through fifteen ballots. That only shows that, unlike real votes on legislation, those votes against Pelosi were just for show - just like the fifteen times he voted for Hakeem Jeffries. In both instances, neither vote mattered: Pelosi had the votes when he voted against her, and there was never a real chance that his vote would matter in the Speaker’s race.
All of this context should make it clear that, for now, the supposed divide between the Democratic establishment and young progressives is largely window-dressing. There weren’t twenty Democrats, liberal, moderate, or just kooky, who were willing to vote against their party’s nominee for Speaker even once - heck, there wasn’t even one. Still, the Quixotic Caucus set out a roadmap for a future progressive band of renegades to do the same to their party’s leadership that they did to Kevin McCarthy, and if you’re a conservative, that ought to be terrifying to you. Moreover, if that conflict amongst Democrats happens behind closed doors rather than on the floor of the House, it should be more terrifying, not less.
So, congrats, guys. You gave liberals a good strategy to copy, except they’ll probably do it more effectively. Kudos on that one.
Now, apparently one of the side deals between the Quixotic Caucus and McCarthy was that the PAC he controls, the Congressional Leadership Fund, wouldn’t spend in open safe Republican seats. Even if that deal is worth the paper it’s printed on (one assumes it is, somewhere), it only covers McCarthy’s political action committee that is under his direct control. Other, more independent, leadership-allied groups would gain more incentive to target the Quixotic Caucus incumbents as well as open safe seats, not less - and McCarthy would have absolute plausible deniability. Even if that agreement really does hold up throughout the entire 2024 campaign cycle, and even if leadership-allied groups go along with it - two large and hugely unlikely ifs - it will be completely abandoned by the time 2026 rolls around.
Moreover, even if that agreement holds up in 2024, there’s no indication that it covers the recruitment of candidates in open, competitive seats, and you can rest assured that leadership will absolutely demand complete loyalty from those candidates. They’ll also do everything they can to completely undermine any Quixotic Caucus-aligned candidates who might crop up in those districts, and that’s perfectly logical. Part of the reason that Kevin McCarthy was in this mess to begin with was because Democrats helped boost those types of candidates in competitive districts last year, shrinking the Republican majority.
The Quixotic Caucus not only gained nothing in terms of policy, as I pointed out last week, any political gains they made are likely to be short-term if they last at all. In the long term, they’ve likely solidified the rest of the House Republican Caucus against them and their odious tactics. That could well be the one positive take-away from this for the Republican Party: it turns grandstanding showboats like the Quixotic Caucus into the endangered species they deserve to be and teaches future leaders to avoid the mistakes Kevin McCarthy has already made.
You may follow Jim on Twitter or Facebook. He is also a weekly political columnist for the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s largest daily newspaper.