Analysis: Democrat failure to save US speaker hands power to Republican right



Following the ousting of Kevin McCarthy as US House speaker, Dr Thomas Gift and Dr Julie Norman (both UCL Centre on US Politics) warn in The Conversation that the move will likely embolden the far right of the Republican party.

California Republican Kevin McCarthy has become the first ever speaker of the US House of Representatives to be ejected from his position. In a 216 to 210 vote, Democrats joined with far-right Republicans to remove McCarthy from office.

The "motion to vacate" the speakership, initiated by Florida Republican firebrand Matt Gaetz on October 3, has now plunged the house into civil war.

Politically, voting against him was the shrewd thing to do. Supporting a bid to oust the speaker is what we’d expect from whichever party was in the minority.

An internal tussle for the speaker’s gavel makes Republicans look weak, chaotic, and disorganised. Saving a man who helped to resuscitate Donald Trump after the January 6 attack on the Capitol would have been a tough sell for many in their home districts.

But, by letting McCarthy lose his job, Democrats missed an opportunity to "go high", if not for McCarthy personally, then for the integrity of Congress as an institution.

Most Democrats agree with most Republicans that the house is under assault from a far-right group intent on torpedoing Washington for personal gain, punishing pragmatism and framing bipartisan compromise as unforgivable.

Democrats had a chance to halt this brand of politics and prevent it from gaining traction. Instead, they rewarded it.

It’s hard to complain about a far-right radical like Gaetz coming to Capitol Hill to blow up the system, and then offer him a hand grenade. Yet that’s what Democrats did by voting with a tiny fraction of Republican rebels to topple McCarthy.

For Democrats, McCarthy was far from a perfect speaker. No Republican would be. But it’s hard to discount his willingness to at least look for compromise. In June, McCarthy worked with Democrats to avoid a debt-ceiling fiasco. At the end of September, he reached across the aisle to stave off a government shutdown, which would have left millions of government employees unpaid.

McCarthy was under no obligation to do either. Had he let the house descend into chaos, he’d still be clenching the speaker’s gavel.

Of course, for many Democrats, McCarthy crossed a line by launching an impeachment investigation into President Joe Biden in September. He also reneged on his budget agreement with the White House to cut spending levels to appease the right-wing flank of his party.

And it’s true that bipartisanship came only after McCarthy had seemingly exhausted all other options. But that’s part of the role. He couldn’t try to appease the other side unless he could prove to his party that he’d made a good-faith effort to be partisan.

Now, the message from Democrats to the man who extended an olive branch to their political minority: "You’re out."

In the end, "mainstream" Republicans may have no one but themselves to blame for McCarthy’s demise. For too long, they’ve indulged the impulses of far-right radicals. Their failure to secure a larger majority during the midterms gave outsized influence to a "wrecking ball caucus", a powerful ultra-conservative group.

The concessions that McCarthy made, or was forced to make, in securing the speakership ensured his precarious position. Ultimately, he sowed the seeds of his own demise.

Yet it’s Democrats who, since Trump took centre stage, have rightly complained about ultra-Maga types willing to light Washington on fire. The relentless refrain from the White House is that you’re either with "us" (democracy), or with "them" (Trump’s authoritarianism).

After the speaker’s vote, Democrat house minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, true to form and without an apparent tinge of irony, declared his "hope that traditional Republicans will walk away from Maga extremism and join us in partnership for the good of the country".

Most eyes are, understandably, on the dysfunction within the Republican party that enabled a small flank of disruptors to upend the party’s leadership in the house - and this shows no signs of abating. But Democrats also missed a moment to endorse bipartisanship over political gamesmanship.

The first thing to stipulate: Democrats were under no obligation to throw a life vest to McCarthy.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect that the battle over the speakership would be defined by anything but raw, unadulterated politics. Yet what Democrats have done by failing to rescue McCarthy is embolden an already too-bold radical right caucus.

They may have also scuttled their best hope for priorities, such as getting a palatable budget deal by November and securing further aid to Ukraine. McCarthy’s successor may be less likely to compromise on these issues, and any movement on both will be delayed as the house scrambles to name a new speaker.

By striking a Faustian bargain with Gaetz, Democrats, at least for now, have got their wish. But with no clear McCarthy successor, whether the devil they know is really worse than the devil they don’t know is anything but obvious.

This article was first published in  The Conversation  on 4 October 2023.
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