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Fitness Test

House Republicans squabble over, of all things, political propriety.

(Photo of Rashida Tlaib by Ricky Carioti/Washington Post/Getty Images. Photo of Marjorie Taylor Greene by Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty Images)

Mike Johnson’s first order of business as speaker is funding for Israel. But the House’s first order of business since electing him was different.

Normally the speaker sets the legislative calendar, which means nothing comes to the floor without his or her say-so. One might think Republicans would be keen to honor that custom in Johnson’s case to signal confidence in their new chief and his agenda. Let Mike lead! 

One would be wrong. 

The speaker’s power over the House’s schedule isn’t absolute. As Kevin McCarthy recently learned the hard way, certain matters—like bringing a motion to vacate the chair—are deemed “privileged” and must be considered by the full House whether or not he or she approves. And on Wednesday, two different privileged resolutions introduced by members of Johnson’s conference landed in his lap.

And both, oddly, had to do with policing the conduct of fellow House members for propriety.

One resolution was brought by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and sought censure of Hamas propagandist Rep. Rashida Tlaib for “anti-semitic activity,” including—ahem—“leading an insurrection” on the Capitol grounds by participating in a pro-Palestinian rally last month. The other was filed by GOP Rep. Anthony D’Esposito of New York and aimed to expel serial liar George Santos from the chamber before he stands trial on 23 federal charges.

Both resolutions failed in the face of bipartisan opposition. But it’s interesting that Donald Trump’s party momentarily found itself consumed by questions about what sort of behavior might render an elected official unfit for office.

After nearly a month of paralysis over the speaker drama, why did Republicans resort to matters of propriety as their top priority once the House was back in session?

The simple explanation is that they needed a release valve after weeks of infighting. For almost the entire month of October, the majority party was consumed by what might delicately be described as “tensions.”

Frustrated and embarrassed, they did what frustrated and embarrassed people tend to do. They took it out on their enemies by picking a fight.

To grasp how irritated the entire conference was by last month’s humiliation, note that Wednesday’s resolutions came from two wings of the conference that are poles apart. Greene is the beating heart of the MAGA bloc, of course, whereas D’Esposito—a freshman from New York who flipped a Democratic district last fall—is part of the dwindling bloc of normies in the House GOP who’ll be defending front-line seats next year.

At first blush, the fact that he targeted a fellow Republican with his resolution while Greene targeted a progressive Democrat feels … off.

After all, populists are the ones who are forever throwing roundhouses at other members of the party. Their highest priority is transforming the GOP into a Trumpy post-liberal project, not gaining power or, lord knows, governing. Most occupy seats in blood-red districts where Democrats are an electoral afterthought, leaving them free to focus on the enemy within.

For normies in battleground districts, their careers depend on convincing swing voters that they’re preferable to Democrats. As such, they have no choice but to take governing seriously. And serious governing requires drawing a favorable contrast with the other party by delivering more for the district than Democrats could.

So one might assume it’d be D’Esposito targeting a leftist with his resolution and Greene targeting a normie Republican. Why wasn’t it?

I think both wings were reacting to the dawning reality that the propriety of elected officials’ behavior will be a major issue on the ballot next fall, even more so than it was last fall. 

After Mike Pence quit the presidential race last weekend, NRSC chairman Steve Daines called on the rest of the Republican also-rans to follow his lead. “It’s clear President Trump is going to be the nominee,” he declared, urging the field to unite behind the frontrunner. It’s hard to argue with his logic: Trump’s closest competitor hasn’t inched north of 15 percent in nearly three months and the candidate who’s currently “surging” has no realistic path to building a majority.

The impropriety of Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election may have been decisive in limiting the GOP’s gains in the 2022 midterms, blunting the expected “red wave.” Having him at the top of the Republican ticket next year, when he’s facing 91 felony charges and counting, will only amplify its salience. The party’s candidates in House races are left with no choice but to reckon with when a politician’s behavior is—and isn’t—disqualifying for office.

Especially now that they’ve gone and made a top lieutenant in Trump’s failed coup plot speaker of the House. “He was willing to set aside what he knew to be the rulings of the courts, the requirements of the Constitution, in order to placate Donald Trump,” Liz Cheney said this week of Mike Johnson. That the conference would reward him with power after he behaved so disgracefully will also feature in Democrats’ attack on the GOP’s sense of propriety next November.

Republicans will need an answer.

Wednesday’s dueling resolutions are a taste of how each wing of the party will respond.

The normies are going to run away from Trump and position themselves as independents. As much as they feasibly can, anyway.

They can’t pronounce him unfit for office. Even in battleground districts, too many Republican voters treat Trump like some sort of Jesus for candidates like D’Esposito to disown him. Needless to say, they won’t be able to get him to pipe down about stolen elections or discouraging his own base from voting or casually threatening judges and prosecutors, either. Henry Olsen is right: Given the perverse political incentives of the right-wing base, Trump probably wants to be jailed for contempt of court at this point.

There’s nothing Anthony D’Esposito can do about the giant orange albatross that’ll be hung around his neck, so he’ll do what he can instead to try to show the swing voters who sent him to Congress last year that he’s not “Trump’s kind of Republican.” He’ll make a show of being a stickler for propriety at the expense of a member of the party whom it is safe to pronounce unfit for office.

That means making an example of George Santos, who’s facing less than a third as many criminal charges as Trump. That was the point of Wednesday’s expulsion resolution.

Trying to oust Santos is the normies’ way of hinting to centrist voters in their districts that they won’t let MAGA populists move the Overton window on political propriety too much. There is a line, even in the era of Trump. And although they’ll never enforce that line with respect to Trump himself—not one of these guys will have the guts to vote to impeach when, not if, Trump 2.0 commits an impeachable offense—they’ll enforce it with respect to lesser populists.

Trump is above the law, but only Trump. That’s the best “respectable” Republicans can do in 2023.

The MAGA bloc in the House wanted something different out of its resolution censuring Rashida Tlaib. They won’t be running away from their hero in the next election, obviously; their political influence depends on his success. The point of targeting Tlaib was to weaken the salience of propriety as an issue next fall by suggesting that, in their own ways, Democrats are just as corrupt as Trump is.

It’s the same reason the House GOP will never relinquish its impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden, no matter how fruitless it seems. The party has no defense on the merits to Trump’s coup-plotting or to the criminal offenses he appears to have committed, especially his concealment of classified documents. The only way to level the electoral playing field on the subject of corruption and propriety is to DARVO their way through it with attacks on the “Biden crime family.”

You might not like Donald Trump and his acolytes who worry about Jewish space lasers, but at least he’s not sick enough to pretend that Israel bombed that hospital in Gaza despite all evidence to the contrary. That’s the political logic for trying to censure Tlaib. It aims to convince voters that Democrats—or at least one Democrat—are just as bad. Maybe worse, even.

The political “tell” in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s censure resolution was the analogy it drew between January 6 and the October 18 protest by pro-Palestinian activists inside the Cannon House office building. Love it or hate it, that protest wasn’t an attempt to overthrow the government. The fact that Greene insisted on calling it an “insurrection” anyway didn’t sit well with Republicans like Chip Roy, who conceded that Tlaib behaved improperly but voted against censure nonetheless:

Greene didn’t react well, unsurprisingly. 

If it seems odd that a populist like her and a populist like Roy would be so sharply at odds on this, remember that Roy is a dogmatic conservative while Greene is pure MAGA. She voted against certifying Joe Biden’s electoral votes on January 6, 2021; Roy did not. Roy is also one of a few members of Congress to have endorsed Ron DeSantis. I’ll leave you to guess whom Greene has endorsed.

Roy saw the game she was playing on Trump’s behalf in her resolution and refused to participate. Censuring Rashida Tlaib was only nominally the point; the strategic point was to flatten the meaning of “insurrection” so that remnants of both parties can be said to have engaged in it. And if both parties are guilty, it’s unfair to hold what happened on January 6 against Trump, isn’t it?

The MAGA bloc wants to yank the Overton window on political propriety in whichever direction is required to suit Trump’s electoral needs. The less fit for office the worst Democrat in Congress is, the less relevant Trump’s—and their own—unfitness becomes.

Surprisingly, both of Wednesday’s resolutions ended up failing.

Most Democrats backed their own party’s resolution to expel George Santos when it came to the floor in May, but 31 got cold feet this time. Some, like Jamie Raskin, cited due process, pointing to the fact that neither a criminal jury nor the House Ethics Committee has rendered a verdict on Santos yet. Maybe the Raskins in the Democratic caucus took this resolution more seriously than they took their own six months ago because this one, having been offered by the Republican majority, stood a real chance of passing.

Or maybe they recognized what the GOP’s normie bloc was trying to achieve by ousting Santos and cynically chose to prolong their political agony a bit longer. If Democrats are planning to run next fall against Republicans’ pitifully high tolerance for impropriety, having George Santos running around Congress for as long as possible is to their advantage.

On the Tlaib resolution, 23 Republicans ended up joining Democrats to defeat the measure. Some explained their vote as a defense of free speech. “As much as I disagree with previous comments made by Rep. Tlaib, First Amendment liberties are for every American, and I will support this constitutional right, whether the speaker is on the political left or right and whether they are speaking heinous lies or harsh truths,” said Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan.

But others joined Roy in chafing at the political games Greene was playing by extending the definition of “insurrection.” “I don’t think that Rep. Tlaib was violent. I don’t think that she was trying to overthrow a government,” Rep. Rich McCormick of Georgia said in justifying his “no” vote. Libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie also voted no; perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not, he’s also endorsed Ron DeSantis over the insurrectionist-in-chief.

The timing of the resolutions also felt somewhat surprising, though. Why was policing other members’ conduct the first order of business for House Republicans after the speaker saga ended, at a moment when a majority under new leadership might logically want to get cracking on serious policy immediately? Was it really just a matter of blowing off steam?

Maybe it was a simple matter of opportunity. If ever there were a moment to air some grievances, it was the brief lull when the new speaker was staffing up and getting up to speed on his new duties. There might not be another lull for a while, as Mike Johnson and his members will soon need to pass funding for Israel and (maybe) Ukraine, a series of appropriations bills, and a deal with the Senate and the White House on funding the government.

Soon there’ll be no time left for anything other than urgent legislative business. (Er, in theory.) Had the resolutions not reached the floor when they did, they might have been pushed back forever.

That’s one possibility. But the fact that the right and center of the conference suddenly took to wrestling over the position of the Overton window feels like a predictable consequence of the speaker saga and a predictable prelude to the upcoming presidential primaries.

The House GOP cycled through a remarkable variety of potential leaders in the span of just a few weeks—opportunist Kevin McCarthy, reliable conservative Steve Scalise, MAGA fanatic Jim Jordan, squishy moderate Tom Emmer, and finally soft-spoken social conservative and coup-enabler Mike Johnson. A party with a coherent identity wouldn’t have tried on so many different hats so quickly.

The Republican Party has spent eight years searching for that identity, and not just ideologically. The question of how much impropriety it should tolerate—or even encourage—in its leadership is also a live issue, albeit one rarely articulated bluntly by elected Republicans for fear of being seen as “disloyal.” Wrangling over Santos and Tlaib feels in hindsight like a safe-ish way for them to have that argument, a sort of proxy war between MAGA enthusiasts who want fitness for office defined opportunistically and traditional conservatives who take principle more seriously.

Let’s hope the right side wins that debate, the sooner the better.

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Nick Catoggio

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.