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Kevin’s Best Friend

Having Matt Gaetz as a foil isn’t the worst thing.

Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks to the media after speaking on the House floor about a possible effort to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C, October 2, 2023. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Would you rather have Speaker Kevin McCarthy or Speaker Matt Gaetz?

McCarthy is slippery, mealy-mouthed, and a servile lackey to Donald Trump in most things. He’s no one’s idea of a serious legislator, and he pales as a strategist by comparison to Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi.

But between the two options I’ve offered, it’s no contest, is it?

The last two weeks of shutdown theater in the House have functioned as a sort of slow-motion referendum on the question. Republicans and Democrats in the House might even soon cast a vote that’ll pit McCarthy against Gaetz directly. In the end, I suspect, it won’t be close.

“Bad” never looks more appealing than when the alternative is “terrible.”

Gaetz will have gotten what he wanted from his battle with McCarthy even if his motion to vacate the speakership crashes and burns. He proved that the Joker caucus in the House—which he now (arguably) leads—is willing and able to humiliate the leadership on major votes and even to commandeer the floor agenda for a spell. His esteem among the populist base as a scourge of the Republican establishment has never been higher. He was even the guest of honor on Sunday news programs this weekend, further elevating him as one of the most well-known and influential Republicans in Congress.

If you understand Matt Gaetz’s profession to be the single-minded promotion of Matt Gaetz, it was the most successful two weeks of his life.

But because his shtick is so cynical and transparent, and because he was willing to sacrifice conservative policy gains in order to practice it, he inadvertently ended up making Kevin McCarthy seem—dare I say it?—reasonable, even sympathetic.

Here was the speaker on Saturday, when he gave up on trying to pass a Republicans-only bill to keep the government open that would have included spending cuts and border-security measures. Thanks to the Joker caucus, he was forced to strip out those provisions in order to secure Democratic votes and pass a bipartisan bill instead.

“There is a small group determined to force any resolution to happen with Democratic votes, thereby ensuring a narrative that they were betrayed by leadership and/or moderates,” lobbyist Liam Donovan said shortly before the bipartisan bill passed. Grievance manufacturing is Gaetz’s shtick precisely, and many right-wingers wised up to it this week—including some whom you might not expect.

“McCarthy or Gaetz?” isn’t the worst frame for Kevin McCarthy, I’d argue, when it’s never been clearer to both sides that the Jokers just want to watch the world burn.

Normally a Republican speaker partnering with a Democratic minority to keep the government open would be rage rocket fuel for the Republican base. But as I write this on Monday, there’s less annoyance at McCarthy and more at his antagonist than I would have expected.

Moderate Republicans are furious with Gaetz for reasons you’d expect. They’re in Congress to govern, not to do populist performance art. And they need to defend seats in swing districts, where pissing off the center by shutting down the government is apt to get you tossed out of office.

Mike Lawler, a freshman from New York, has been especially outspoken against Gaetz. “They delayed the process by voting down the rules, violating our conference rules. They delayed the process by refusing to come to an agreement within the conference,” he complained this weekend, referring to the Joker caucus. “They are the reason that we had to work together yesterday with House Democrats to pass a CR [continuing resolution to fund the government]. That is not the fault of Kevin McCarthy, that’s the fault of Matt Gaetz.”

That last critique is shrewd. In Trump’s Republican Party, empowering Democrats is the greatest sin a politician can commit. It’s why Trump’s opponents in the presidential primary won’t use his four criminal indictments against him, despite the fact that they’re 40 points behind. To fault him for the crimes he’s been accused of by Democratic-aligned prosecutors is necessarily to treat their accusations as credible. That would amount to empowering the left. For a Republican, that’s disqualifying …

… Unless you’re Matt Gaetz and you’re looking to make trouble for Kevin McCarthy?

Numerous conservatives have noted the irony of Gaetz blaming McCarthy for working with the left while he himself goes about working with the left. The Joker caucus is a smallish minority of the House Republican conference, remember; to find 218 votes to oust the speaker, they’ll need a heavy majority of Democrats to carry most of the load. Voting with Democrats against a top Republican is normally high partisan treason—ask Mitt Romney—but Gaetz isn’t being shy about his bipartisanship in this case. He’s openly lobbying House liberals for votes, even contacting the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus for support.

“It is, to say the least, counterintuitive strategic thinking to conclude that Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries should be handed power over the fate of a Republican speaker of the House—in the name of conservative ideological purity,” quipped National Review in an editorial published on Monday. But it’s not just National Review that finds Gaetz’s tactics too liberal-friendly.

Newt Gingrich is normally a reliable apologist for Trump and his admirers, as one must be in order to remain relevant in Republican politics. Not this time, though.

Usually no one is more predictable in a “populists versus establishment” fight than right-wing talk radio, but again, not this time. Mark Levin echoed a substantive objection to Gaetz’s antics that was made by Chip Roy: By refusing to support any stopgap funding measure, even one co-authored by Roy that contained spending cuts and border security provisions, the Joker caucus ensured that any bill that eventually passed would require Democratic support and would therefore be less conservative in substance.

Gaetz strengthened Democrats’ hand on the CR. Now he’s begging them to join forces with him to depose a speaker who was endorsed by Donald Trump and whom most House Republicans support. And as icing on the cake, he’s taken to complimenting Joe Biden (sort of) for the sake of mocking McCarthy.

Gaetz’s GOP colleagues are so fed up with him that they’ve begun whispering to the American right’s favorite news outlet that the forthcoming House Ethics Committee report on his conduct will hopefully give them an excuse to expel him. “No one can stand him at this point. A smart guy without morals,” one member told Fox News.

I ask you: In context, is being hated by Matt Gaetz really so bad politically for Kevin McCarthy?

Consider the pickle the speaker would be in today if Gaetz and the Jokers hadn’t derailed Roy’s fiscally conservative stopgap bill.

The measure would have passed the House and then assuredly died in the Senate. The government would have shut down. McCarthy would have been stuck trying to negotiate a way out while praying that American voters didn’t blame House Republicans for the stalemate.

Those negotiations inevitably would have pleased no one. Moderate Republicans would have screamed at him to make a deal with Democrats ASAP while threatening to sign a discharge petition and pass a “clean” funding bill if he didn’t. Fiscal conservatives would have howled that McCarthy had sold out to the White House once he ended up making some concessions as part of an agreement. He’d agonize over how long to “fight” on by keeping the government shut, knowing that no matter what he decided, he’d have waited too long for some and not long enough for others.

In the end, a motion to vacate might have been brought against him anyway. And this time, the vote wouldn’t have been framed as a “McCarthy or Gaetz?” binary. It would have been a pure up-or-down on the speaker’s performance.

Because Gaetz et al. blocked Roy’s bill, though, the House GOP managed to avoid a shutdown and McCarthy managed to avoid blame for capitulating to Democrats by all except the most usual “usual suspects” on the right. What otherwise would have been a story about a leader with a weak spine has become a story about a speaker grappling with an intractable rejectionist bloc of grandstanders intent on obstructing for the sake of obstruction. This would have been “the first-ever shutdown about nothing,” said Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute a day before a deal was struck. “The weirdest thing about it is that the Republicans don’t have any demands. What do they want? What is it that they’re going to shut the government down for? We simply don’t know.”

Crisis averted, thanks to Matt Gaetz.

To which one might reasonably reply: But this is just a temporary reprieve. The compromise bill that passed on Saturday expires in 45 days, after all. McCarthy and his caucus will be right back in this position in November. The scenario I described might yet play out.

That’s true, but I wonder if the speaker won’t be given a little more grace by his enemies in Congress when the next funding showdown arrives now that they’ve seen how far the rejectionists are willing to go. Take, for example, how some House Democrats are reacting to the prospect of Gaetz’s looming motion to vacate.

Some progressives, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have said they’ll support it, but not all. “I’m not going to follow Matt Gaetz to Peter Luger’s Steakhouse,” sneered Steve Cohen. “[McCarthy] did the right thing … and I’ll definitely vote not to vacate. I expect a good number of Democrats will as well.” Another Democrat, Greg Landsman, complained of Gaetz, “Every time we work together, he loses his mind. This is all about TV appearances for him … just let us govern.”

A third Democrat told Axios, “I see almost no way that Matt gets most of the Dems.”

Normally we’d expect a speaker from one party to have to make substantive concessions to the other if he’s forced to rely on their support to hold onto his gavel. But Gaetz’s nonsense may have proved so off-putting to Democrats, let alone to moderate Republicans, that having him as a foil may be enough to win McCarthy their votes. “It is in Democrats’ interest to save McCarthy,” said former Paul Ryan aide Brendan Buck on why the speaker likely won’t horse-trade over a motion to vacate. “What they get is not letting Matt Gaetz pick the next speaker.”

Nor is it just Democrats who are leery of ousting McCarthy, much as they might relish the chaos that doing so would unleash on the right. Even some members of the Joker caucus are reluctant.

“I fear that attempting to vacate Speaker McCarthy at this juncture is a bad idea that will lead to worse outcomes for conservatives,” libertarian Thomas Massie tweeted on Sunday. A day later Marjorie Taylor Greene chimed in and said she opposes any effort to expel Gaetz for ethical violations—and also any effort to oust McCarthy as speaker. 

McCarthy has shrewdly cultivated alliances with Greene and Massie, knowing that their support would be valuable at a moment like this when a populist revolt might otherwise be stirring. Having them pipe up now is probably more a matter of him calling in a favor than the two wanting to put distance between themselves and Gaetz.

But we can safely assume that if Gaetz’s plan to portray McCarthy as an unconscionable sellout on spending were succeeding among the base as wildly as he hoped, Greene and Massie would be more circumspect about riding to the speaker’s defense. They might also fear, reasonably, that whoever would replace McCarthy following a successful Gaetz coup would be less eager to deal with them than the current speaker is.

And given how intense the competition is within the Joker caucus for national populist stardom, they could have a personal motive to not want to hand Gaetz any sensational political victories like decapitating the leadership that might make him a singular hero to the Republican base.

The more Gaetz asserts himself as the face of the opposition in November’s funding battle—and he will—the more likely it is that the “McCarthy or Gaetz?” frame will assert itself as well. How might that change the calculus for someone like Chip Roy, whose bill the speaker was prepared to pass before Gaetz derailed it? What might it do to centrist Democrats pondering a spending deal that’s a bit more conservative on the merits than they’d prefer but is loudly despised by the likes of Matt Gaetz?

What if McCarthy, having been forced this week to seek Democratic support to survive a motion to vacate by the Joker caucus, makes a decidedly centrist deal in November because he “owes” House liberals something for their support? Will he be blamed for that by his caucus—or will Gaetz be blamed for having forced the speaker to seek liberal support in the first place to survive, despite there being no obvious Republican successor lined up to replace him?

Yuval Levin is right that the House Republican conference has entered a “new phase” after Saturday’s vote.

McCarthy can no longer really pretend that his approach to running the House is not at odds with the approach that a portion of the House Freedom Caucus wants to see. After the vote Saturday, he explicitly described those HFC members as operating outside the larger Republican conference, even as he said he hoped that might change. “I welcome those 21 back in, and we would get a better and more conservative bill if they would vote with us,” he said. There is a “they” and an “us” now, and McCarthy’s fate depends upon how many of his members identify with his side of that divide.

Those HFC members may have overplayed their hand here, or it could be that McCarthy has. The coming weeks will tell.

There is a “they” and an “us” now. Things were destined to shake out that way, as the narrow majority Republicans won last November guaranteed that McCarthy would eventually need to choose between the MAGA bloc and the rest of the House on a key vote.

By being stridently rejectionist, brashly obnoxious, media-hungry, and remorselessly hypocritical about allying with Democrats—by essentially making himself a symbol of government dysfunction as performance art—Gaetz made it as politically easy as possible for the speaker to make the choice that he did. His unpopularity may yet make it easier for McCarthy to take sides against him on other issues, like funding for Ukraine.

When the motion to vacate finally comes up for a vote, I suspect we’ll find that McCarthy’s “us” is quite a bit larger than Gaetz’s “they.” Even Gaetz himself seems to share my suspicions.

Which is good for McCarthy in the near term, no? If he defeats the motion resoundingly, with many more Republicans voting no than voting yes, it’ll solidify his hold on power and possibly be read as a bipartisan vote of “no confidence” in the Joker bloc. And if public antipathy to Gaetz’s antics steers more principled populists in the conference like Roy and Massie further away from obstructionism and toward cooperation, that’s to the good.

But in the long term? One shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of Republican voters to behave like Republican voters.

“Pro-Gaetz sentiment running about 90% here,” Florida-based reporter Marc Caputo tweeted on Monday. If you follow politics as a spectator sport, as many voters do, it doesn’t matter whether the Jokers’ demands were reasonable or coherent or productive or that they’re now “threatening to oust Speaker McCarthy for a situation that they created and have made unsolvable,” as Brian Riedl put it last week in a piece for The Dispatch.

What matters is that Gaetz was willing to burn it all down in the name of trivially meager spending cuts and McCarthy was not. He “fights”—never mind how pointless or even counterproductive that fight might be. Come November, House Republicans may be getting enough of an earful from constituents about fighting harder that any sort of deal with Democrats will be treated by the base as justification for ousting the speaker and primarying anyone who votes with him.

In that case, serious fiscal conservatives should consider whether a party whose voters demand either mindless rejectionism or fathomless spending—depending entirely on which side controls the White House—remains a party that’s serious enough to warrant your continued membership in it.

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.