The warfare within the GOP spilled into the open a few months early as three ballots failed to confirm Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House. What is normally reserved for presidential primary stages is now on the floor of Congress. While many on the Right embrace the fight that is occurring now, there is a lingering question that must be asked – will this help win elections?
The fact is that the GOP has been in a downward spiral since the victories of 2016. In 2017, only 6 years ago, Republicans had a 52 seat Majority in the Senate, a 241 seat Majority in the House, and the Presidency. The state level looked even better, where the Republicans left the Democratic party so decimated that there were only 6 states where Democrats had control of both the Upper and Lower chamber of the State legislature and the Governorship. Republicans held 25 “trifecta” states, with many lean blue or even dark blue states, like New York, New Jersey, Washington, and Illinois, having split control. What did Republicans do with this power? Tax cuts.
Tax cuts are great, but they aren’t enough to hang your hat on. The Democrats in 2021/2022 accomplished far more than that, from their point of view. While their policies are unpopular, there’s no denying that they got a ton of legislation passed and signed. They spent trillions of dollars on Covid spending, climate spending, “infrastructure” spending (heavy emphasis on the scare quotes). They passed same sex marriage into law to much fanfair. Their base is incredibly happy with what they are doing.
Now we’re in 2023, a mere 5 years after 2017, and the landscape is a complete 180. Obviously there’s the Presidency, but with the so-called-wave election year in 2022 falling flat, the Democrats are still in a far stronger position than they could have hoped for in October. Democrats gained a seat in the Senate and have a strong presence in the House, even though it’s a Minority. Their coalition is disciplined, choosing three new leaders to replace the old guard that lasted over 20 years. Democrats also hold 14 trifecta states, with many of the Republican trifectas from 2017 now split.
How did Republicans get from there to here? The path to victory in 2016 was opposition to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, combined with the new approach of Donald Trump. Trump capitalized on the anti-media sentiment that many Republicans and independents have. Republicans took the wrong lessons from 2016, that just because a Trumpian “he fights” figure could win, that doesn’t mean they will win. Democrats capitalized on the desire that Republicans have for a fighter and backed those type of personalities in the primaries, and those people lost. Democrats are choosing who they want to run against, and are winning because of it.
The fight is necessary because Republicans have not been able to stand up to the increasing radicalism of the Left. While the media claims that Republicans are the ones who changed in the last 20 years, they have not. The policies are the same, even shifting leftwards many times. The main difference is that the Republican Party today has begun to have some guts and defend those principles. This began with the Tea Party movement and was furthered by the populism of Donald Trump. This is a good movement initially, but it has been boiled down to two factions, those who are willing to work with Democrats sometimes and those who are willing to work with Democrats never. The Speaker vote is an inflection point between these two factions, and it comes down to what the Republican party actually is.
There are two opinions on what the Republican party is. Is the Party a vehicle for conservative policy to be enacted, or is the Party a vehicle for people to get elected. Those who oppose McCarthy in the speakership do so because they don’t see him as a standard bearer for conservative policy, same as his predecessors John Boehner and Paul Ryan. Nor do they see him as open to strong conservative policy that he is willing to fight for. This is the difference between how they view McCarthy and Trump, for instance. Few people support Trump for his policies, they support him because he is willing to fight for conservative policies, even if he doesn’t believe them. No other Republican President, unless they truly believed in the cause, would show up to the March for Life and give a strong, pro-life message. Trump’s personal beliefs are irrelevant, he is the vehicle for the policy. That vehicle led to great success in the pro-Life cause with the successful nomination of Supreme Court Justices that overturned Roe.
Even if he were strictly pro-life, it’s hard to imagine Kevin McCarthy pushing for a pro-life bill in the House of Representatives as Speaker. He sees it as an unpopular, losing issue, so he wouldn’t fight for it. That is indicative of his entire philosophy. McCarthy is more than willing to fight the political battles in the House by getting strong Republicans on the January 6th committee (before Pelosi kicked them off) and opening up investigations into Hunter Biden’s laptop, but will McCarthy go after major policy battles like reigning in Big Tech or election integrity laws or outlaw child gender mutilation? Would he pass a parental bill of rights? Could he unify the caucus in accomplishing any of these things?
Then there are those who are voting for McCarthy, who are not necessarily doing so because it’s “his turn”, but rather because McCarthy is not so scary to independent voters. Republicans don’t have the same luxuries that Democrats have. Democrats can be both as leftist as they want and a vehicle for electoral victory. They have the advantage of cities, where densely packed populations give them a baseline of support in the House where seats are given based on population. They also have the compliance of a media, housed in those cities, that allows them to get away with anything in the name of “compassion.” Representative democracy has become so urbanized that Democrats don’t need to campaign anymore, they just put all their effort into making sure as many people in the cities are voting as possible, even if they have no indication that they are willing to do so. Republicans need to not only win over registered Republicans and convince them to go vote, but they need to convince independents to vote for them as well in outsized numbers in many districts located in blue states.
For this reason, Republicans cannot discount what independents want.. Independents don’t care about loyalty to Trump, or populism, or even fiscal conservatism. Independents can be scared into voting for Democrats by shouting about abortion or January 6th, and they have the funds and media backing to keep that message on a 24-hour loop. What are Republicans campaigning to independents, especially the Freedom Caucus Republicans? A debt ceiling fight? A term limit bill that won’t get 100 votes? Independent voters, the ones that voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, do not vote Republican for these reasons. They want what Jim Jordan was pushing for in his speech on the House floor endorsing Keving McCarthy. “We have a border that is no longer a border, we have a military that can’t meet its recruitment goals. We have bad energy policy, bad education policy, record spending, record inflation, record debt, and a government that has been weaponized against We The People.” Republicans, Independents, and even moderate Democrats can get behind that kind of message. The anti-McCarthy block loves that message, as they nominated Jordan for Speaker. However, unless Jim Jordan, or another unifying figure like him, actually seeks the job, McCarthy is still the most likely candidate.
One person who seems to get this is Marjorie Taylor Greene, who split from her fellow Freedom Caucus members and is backing McCarthy. After sitting on the sidelines for 2 years after Nancy Pelosi took the unprecedented move to strip her of her committee assignments, Greene is looking to get to work. On Twitter she wrote, “We can’t even swear in as members of congress until we elect a Speaker. We can’t form committees until we elect a Speaker. We (Republicans) can’t fire Nancy Pelosi loyal staff in the House & Capitol until we elect a Speaker. We can’t investigate anything until we have a Speaker.”
Greene is exactly right. Committees need to be formed, investigations need to happen. That is the main purpose of a Republican House majority when they don’t hold the Senate or the Presidency. Meaningful legislation has to wait until Republicans have more power, but they can’t get more power until they get their act together enough to convince the average voter that they are competent. This fight shows neither competency nor unity. It will likely hurt the GOP going forward, which means that the real battles for meaningful policy will continue to be put on hold.