Democrats Should’ve Saved Kevin McCarthy

Elections & Politics Policy Brief #104 | By: Arvind Salem | November 1, 2023
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Policy Summary:

On October 25,2023, Representative Mike Johnson won the floor vote to become the new Speaker of the House, leaving the House without a speaker for 22 days. This saga, kicked off after the ousting of former speaker McCarthy, was emblematic of the battle between the far-right and moderate wings of the Republican party.

The effort to oust McCarthy, spearheaded by Representative Matt Gaetz, was initiated after he compromised with Democrats to pass two compromise bills to raise the debt ceiling and avert a government shutdown. The compromises were broadly acceptable to both sides, however due to the Republican’s narrow majority in the House it only took 8 dissatisfied members to oust McCarthy, as Democrats stood idly by. Throughout his tenure, McCarthy has made many moves to placate the right wing of the party (including his decision to open an impeachment inquiry into Biden with scant evidence). As a result, McCarthy was ultimately too far left for the extremist members of his caucus, but too far right for Democrats to want to save. Shortly after, McCarthy declared he would not run to regain his Speakership.

Republicans tried to rally behind Steve Scalise (the House Majority Leader). When it became clear Scalise didn’t have enough votes, they nominated Jim Jordan( Chair of the House Judiciary Committee), who went through three agonizing votes before the Republicans voted to withdraw him. Shortly after, they nominated Doug Emmer, whose candidacy was doomed nearly immediately after he faced resistance from the right flank and was rebuked by former President Donald Trump. After three failed attempts, and multiple rounds of infighting during both the nomination and voting processes, the Republicans finally settled on Mike Johnson (R-LA.), who is emblematic of the far right shift of the Republican party.

Policy Analysis:

Unfortunately, the speakership is now in the hands of a “extreme right-wing ideologue” (according to Hakeem Jeffries). Johnson’s track record has been extensively publicized: his staunchly anti-LGBTQ beliefs and track record (even attempting to introduce a federal version of the “Don’t Say Gay Bill”), peddling 2020 elections conspiracies and his belief that Trump actually won it Johnson believes in radically cutting down social services, including essentially ending Social Security and Medicare.

However, the bigger problem is that this could’ve been avoided if Democrats had simply allowed Kevin McCarthy to remain speaker. Yes, McCarthy wasn’t perfect, but he was still willing to compromise and make some deals with Democrats when the country was at stake. Of course, the political calculations involved in this are exceedingly simple: let the Republicans throw themselves in disarray and watch them burn.  With 2024 on the horizon that may be the best electoral strategy for Democrats to flip the House during the election, and possibly ride the wave in other races. Even that calculation is extremely narrow. Democrats could’ve allowed Republicans to devolve into chaos, but still save them in the end, allowing them to capitalize on the Republicans’ dysfunction, but still boast that they saved them in the end, appealing to moderate voters who are likely to decide major elections.

The best thing for the country undoubtably would’ve been to save McCarthy. The pressure from the far right made it clear that they were holding the Republicans hostage and were not going to settle for anything more moderate than McCarthy, making it a certainty that the new Speaker was going to be even worse than McCarthy was. The best solution would’ve been to settle for the lesser of the two evils and throw McCarthy a lifeline. Now, after both sides playing politics (albeit one for more admirable aims than the other), the country is left with a Speaker more extreme than before, which threatens to worsen polarization and gridlock when both are already at all time highs. This moment could’ve been used to heal the country, with one side extending an olive branch to the other, but instead we’ve become even more fractured with no solution on the horizon.

Engagement Resources:

  • Brennan Center – The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School is an organization that promotes reforms to American democracy and argues against many practices today such as gerrymandering and mass incarceration. Readers who are concerned about the health of democracy in light of this new Speaker may wish to support the Brennan Center and help it advance its proposed reforms to fix the political process.
  • ActBlue – ActBlue allows people to donate to a host of Democratic organizations, candidates, and causes. Readers who are concerned about Republicans in power may wish to donate to some of these organizations.
  • The Bridge Alliance – The Bridge Alliance is a collective working to act against political polarization. Those worried about polarization in light of these events may wish to contribute to this organization.
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