The Quixotic Caucus is an embarrassment
Republicans captured the majority, but can't act
Ordinarily, the opening day of any new legislative body in a mature, established democracy is a mere formality. One party has a clear majority, and they have already established their obvious preference for Speaker of the House. In the United States, at both the federal and the state level, this is ordinarily a partisan position chosen by the majority party. In the United Kingdom, the position is different: while chosen by the majority, they become an independent after taking office and aren’t considered a part of party leadership - and the position isn’t nearly as powerful.
In the United States of America, though, it is a center of enormous power in Washington and, separately, in most states, ever since Thomas Brackett Reed, a Maine Republican, reinvented the role in the late 19th century. He re-wrote the rules to his own advantage and to the advantage of his majority Republicans, and ever since then, the job has been hugely important and influential. It’s no coincidence that, since the reign of ‘Czar’ Reed, there’s been only one election for Speaker of The House that went to multiple ballots, in 1923.
Well, until Tuesday, when Republicans managed to annihilate that norm with multiple layers of ineptitude.
Lest that not become stunningly clear in the forthcoming paragraphs, I am by no means a fan of aspiring Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Like so many in Washington, D.C., his only goal seems to be advancing his own career, rather than standing up for any sort of principles, conservative or otherwise. Sure, he’s made a show of standing up to the Biden Administration, opposing pretty much everything the White House has ever done. On the surface, that stands in stark contrast to his Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell, who’s been willing to cut deals with the Administration - or at least hasn’t stood in the way of his members who wished to do so. That helps explain why former President Donald Trump has enthusiastically endorsed Kevin McCarthy for Speaker while publicly deriding Mitch McConnell.
That reflects only a surface understanding of the dynamics in Congress, however. It’s easier for House Republicans to simply say no to everything when they were in the minority and Democrats didn’t need their vote to pass anything. That allowed them to be pure spectators in the last Congress, a role that gave them the luxury to be showboaters. The Senate, meanwhile, was more evenly divided, and in the smaller body individual Senators have always had more sway than in the House, so they actually had a role to play in governing. That made their job much harder than their House counterparts. Moreover, during the Trump administration, while both House and Senate Republicans largely supported him legislatively and ignored his controversies, Senate Republicans also helped get a then-record number of his judges confirmed - so Mitch McConnell actually deserves more credit from Trump and conservative voters alike, rather than scorn.
Despite all of that, Kevin McCarthy faced a quixotic rebellion from the most right-wing members of his caucus who argued he wasn’t conservative enough. To be sure, that’s a fair criticism, but paralyzing the United States House of Representatives on the first, and second, and third days of session isn’t a productive way to express their frustration. Instead, it just makes Republicans as a whole look completely inept, unable to govern at all, and unworthy of the public’s trust in the future. As is so often the case, their actions actually run counter to their own stated goals.
A big part of the problem is that the Quixotic Caucus (that’s what I’ll be calling them from now on) has been operating without a clear overall strategy or a truly viable alternative to Kevin McCarthy. While they may claim to be fighting for conservative principles, they’ve yet to present another candidate who was any more likely to get 218 votes on the floor than McCarthy. Some of them are insisting that they are fighting for particular concessions on policy, like a tougher stance on fiscal issues when government funding runs out this fall. If that’s true, they’re to be applauded for that, but even if they gain those concessions from McCarthy, they have little chance of seeing them enacted into law with such a razor-thin majority.
If they’re aiming for rules changes and particular positions, like committee chairmanships, it’s understandable but hardly laudable. The vast majority of voters don’t care about that kind of inside baseball; indeed, it’s exactly the kind of banal nonsense that most Americans loathe. With a Democratic Senate and White House, it won’t result in many actual changes in policy. Moreover, Kevin McCarthy has already given the conservative faction most of what they want in terms of rule changes: rather than settling for that, they’re pushing for every last morsel, while making vague promises not to abuse their power.
That strategy is enormously risky for the Quixotic Caucus, and bad for the Republican Party as a whole no matter what. While they might be able to coax exactly the concessions they want from McCarthy - given his unbridled ambition and lackluster leadership, it’d be no surprise - they’ll do permanent damage to the brand of the Republican Party. Any concessions they gain might be so vague that they only make it easier for the Democrats to regain control of the chamber in 2024, leaving them with less influence than they ever had and little, if anything, to show for it.
Another, far worse, possible outcome is that they so draw the ire of their more centrist colleagues that they cut a deal with Democrats to install someone else as Speaker entirely. This is unlikely in the extreme - this is real life, not House of Cards - but the longer this conflict drags on, the likelier it becomes day by day. In that event, any Democratic Speaker or moderate Republican would likely toss out the concessions they’ve already won from McCarthy, assign them all to the most obscure possible committees (if any at all), and relegate them to complete irrelevance.
Even if the Quixotic Caucus wins and gets exactly what they want from McCarthy or someone else, it won’t last long, it looks bad for the rest of the Republican Party, and is unlikely to result in any actual public policy victories. If they lose, they risk everything they’ve gained so far, including the slim Republican majority in the House. At best, the Quixotic Caucus is ignorant of this; at worst, they simply don’t care. They’re willing to do anything in order to to expand their own influence. They’re not fighting for principles any more than McCarthy is: they’re fighting for power as well, just for themselves at the expense of government stability, the Republican Party, and the broader conservative movement as a whole.
Regardless of how this conflict is resolved in the coming days, the biggest winner of this pointless showdown is likely to be Democrats, in both the long run and the short term. In the short term, it’s become clear that whether Kevin McCarthy is Speaker or someone else, the Republican caucus is incredibly disorganized and disunited. In the long term, the Quixotic Caucus has helped them retake control of the House and hurt Republican prospects at all levels all over the country.
No matter what happens, it’s hard to see how any principled conservative counts this as a win in any way, shape, or form.
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.