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Nancy Mace is the worst. Sort of.

House Oversight and Accountability Committee member Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) looks at her two mobile phones during a news conference to present preliminary findings into their investigation into President Joe Biden's family during at the U.S. Capitol on May 10, 2023. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Half of my day is spent writing this newsletter. The other half is spent spamming the Dispatch Slack channel with news links and inane hot takes, which my colleagues graciously receive with awkward silence.

This week, most of those takes have been variations on a theme: Nancy Mace is the worst.

That qualifies as a hot take because Nancy Mace is not the worst. She’s not even the worst of the eight Republicans who voted to oust Kevin McCarthy, one of whom admits to praying for smaller majorities for his party in Congress and another of whom is, uh, Matt Gaetz.

Almost by definition, if you’re part of a group that includes someone prone to regaling colleagues on the House floor with videos of his sexual conquests (allegedly!), you’re not the worst.

Even if you are the worst of a small but terrible group, the competition for “worst Republican of the Trump era besides Trump himself” is impossibly stiff. A second-term member of Congress isn’t going to win it. And if one did, there are stronger candidates than Mace.

Yet somehow, I feel it in my bones: Nancy Mace is the worst.

No one would claim that she’s “worse” than Ted Cruz, say, in a test of relative badness. Cruz began his career in the Senate orchestrating futile government shutdowns and progressed over time to abetting coup attempts, all while posturing as a devotee of good government and a guardian of the Constitution. Objectively, he’s much worse than Mace.

But he’s less disappointing. Cruz never seemed to be anything other than the panderer and grandstander that he was, willing to follow populist Republicans down any hole in hopes that they’d make him president someday. If you find yourself disappointed by his career trajectory, that’s less a matter of him behaving uncharacteristically than you having been a poor judge of character to begin with.

I say that as a poor judgment of character myself.

Which, if I’m being honest, is why I dislike Mace. I’m not mad at her as much as I’m mad at myself for not having recognized initially who and what she is. Imagine the naivete required to believe as late as 2021 that a freshman Republican might place the interests of their country over their own professional ambitions. I did.

It wasn’t totally crazy. One freshman did end up doing so. But I thought that freshman would be Nancy Mace, and I’ve never fully gotten over my embarrassment at that misjudgment. Watching her join the Gaetz gang in ousting McCarthy this week left me feeling like Richard Gere at the end of Primal Fear when Edward Norton finally lets the mask slip.

It took until 2023, but at last I know who she is. Nancy Mace is the Elise Stefanik of Nikki Haleys.

In 2023, there are many terrible Republicans—but few disappointing ones.

The disappointing Republicans are those who, by dint of their ideological commitments or moral sensibilities, seemed likely to resist populism—and then didn’t. There was never a doubt (fine, very briefly a doubt) that Cruz would prefer to let the Trumpian currents take him to destinations unknown than swim against them until his career drowned. But Sen. Mike Lee, Mr. Tea Party, appeared to take his “constitutional conservative” duties seriously. He tried to organize a floor revolt against Trump at the 2016 Republican convention. He called on Trump to drop out after the Access Hollywood tape emerged that fall. And he harbored no presidential ambitions that might lead him into temptation. He was as free to behave as honorably in office as his eventual colleague from Utah, Mitt Romney.

By 2020, however, Lee was scheming to overturn a presidential election on Trump’s behalf. This past August, two years removed from January 6 and with Trump publicly making threats against the prosecutors and judges who are trying to hold him accountable, Lee told an audience in Utah that he wishes Trump were still president and that it’d be “good for America” if he wins next fall. Nowadays he spends less time complaining about the GOP’s authoritarian drift than about Ukraine supporters spamming his online polls.

There’s no more disappointing Republican in the Senate. Mike Lee, who gave every indication that he would be one of the best, truly is the worst. 

Already in her short career, Nancy Mace may have distinguished herself as the most disappointing Republican in the House.

Apart from Marjorie Taylor Greene, there’s probably no freshman member who got as much media coverage last term as Mace did. The nature of their coverage was poles apart, at least early on. Greene was the QAnon-curious crank extolling blind loyalty to Trump, an avatar of the MAGA id. Mace was the old-school Republican from a swing district who’d grown leery of Trump cultism, an avatar of the conservative superego. (Not surprisingly, she and Greene didn’t get along.) On January 6, she refused to join the effort to block Biden’s victory from being certified. The next day, she declared Trump’s legacy “wiped out” by the riot at the Capitol.

But the following week, as Republican voters rallied to their hero’s defense, she contrived a procedural excuse to oppose his impeachment.

Mace didn’t completely abandon her pre-insurrection persona at that point. Later that year she supplied one of the few Republican votes for holding Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress for ignoring a subpoena from the January 6 committee. But her positions on MAGA litmus tests began looking less like Mitt Romney’s and more like … Marjorie Taylor Greene’s. She voted to remove Liz Cheney from the House Republican leadership for being too critical of Trump, for instance, then voted against forming an independent commission to investigate January 6.

Reporters are used to watching idealistic young members of Congress become hacks, but the speed with which Mace pivoted from moralizing “conscience of her party” to dependable vote for her Trump-dominated conference amazed even seasoned political journalists.

I think of that as her “Nikki Haley phase.”

Like Mace in 2021, Haley is a conservative who’s tried to navigate her way politically to a place where she’s just maverick-y enough to interest swing voters yet just MAGA enough to be viable in a primary. And like Mace, her oscillations between pro- and anti-Trump as the politics of the moment require has been cynical even by the standards of a modern Republican.

She made her mark as governor by taking a moral stand on an issue on which many in her own party opposed her. She criticized Trump harshly after January 6, questioning his moral authority to lead going forward and providing the sort of civic clarity that most of the right no longer produces. Then, as Mace did, she realized to her horror that Republican voters felt differently about him. She scrambled to reverse herself, eventually vowing not to oppose him if he stood for president.

She reversed herself again after the great Republican midterm disappointment of 2022, believing that surely this would cause the party’s voters to ditch him and choose a more electable nominee. She, er, appears to have miscalculated about that too. If Trump ends up inviting her to become his running mate, I have no doubt she’ll accept and become an eager attack dog for MAGA populism on the campaign trail next year.

When I think of an otherwise respectable conservative awkwardly trying to balance their instinctive apprehensions about Trumpism with their electoral aspirations, I think of Nikki Haley and Nancy Mace forever swaying on the tightrope. Nancy Mace circa 2021, that is.

Nancy Mace circa 2023? She makes me think of Elise Stefanik.

Stefanik embodies the “respectable” moderate who sells their soul eagerly to populism, lock, stock, and barrel, because doing so is the quickest path to getting ahead in the party. There’s no “balancing,” as there is with Haley. You lay your moral qualms aside, go all-in, and wait for your star to rise.

Before 2016, Stefanik was a notably centrist member of the conference with even more “next-gen Republican” buzz than Haley enjoyed. She was a conspicuously young woman in a party that struggles to attract that demographic and was seen as a future leader of the GOP during the pre-Trump era. By 2019, though, with the American right having decayed into a cult of personality, Stefanik recognized that soon there would be no path to leadership for a “pre-Trump” Republican. Worse, her moderate voting record left her ripe for a populist primary challenge in her district.

So she seized the opportunity presented by Trump’s first impeachment to position herself as one of his staunchest allies, angrily attacking Democrats in appearances in populist media. She never let up afterward; today she’s as dependable a Trump ally as Marjorie Taylor Greene is. She was rewarded for it when she replaced Liz Cheney in the House leadership and may yet be rewarded again by joining Trump on the presidential ticket. She’s been completely absolved of her sins in voting like a liberal through her devotion to our lord and savior, the guy with 91 criminal charges against him and counting.

Stefanik represents a wholesale reinvention of one’s political persona to accommodate and exploit Trumpism. Watching Nancy Mace this past week has felt like witnessing the birth of Stefanik 2.0 in real time.

In January of this year, Gaetz’s attempts to block McCarthy from the speakership inspired Mace to post this tweet:

Nine months later, having just joined Gaetz in deposing McCarthy, Mace posted a follow-up.

In January, she attacked Gaetz for cynically fundraising off of his opposition to the speaker. Today she’s … fundraising off of her opposition to the speaker, and being embarrassed for it on national television.

She’s been so eager to cash in on her recent notoriety in her many, many media appearances this week, in fact, that it appears she ran afoul of House ethics rules in one interview.

Mace’s justification for opposing McCarthy sounds Haley-esque in its reasonableness. He made certain promises to me about issues we would take up on the floor, she insisted, and then failed to keep them. But McCarthy claims that’s not true—and that Mace’s own chief of staff admitted as much. And it’s empirically true that at least some of her legislative priorities were being addressed. The last bill the House voted on before McCarthy was deposed was—wait for it—the MACE Act.

That wasn’t the only time he did Mace a favor, leaving House Republicans stunned and mortified that she’d repay the speaker by joining a bloc of populist nihilists to end his tenure. There’s chatter on the Hill about her being expelled from two centrist-leaning House groups she belongs to, and some of McCarthy’s allies have warned her that she might not get financial help from the party for her next race.

But I doubt she’s worried about it. As a capstone to her post-ouster media tour, Mace sat down to chat with the same man whom she voted to hold in contempt of Congress two years earlier. And you’ll never guess who accompanied her.

Nancy Mace has lots of new fans among the enormous burn-it-all-down contingent of grassroots Republicans. As Marjorie Taylor Greene might tell you, that’s a lucrative niche to occupy.

Mace’s pivot from Cheney-adjacent to Gaetz-adjacent may seem sudden, but it’s been in motion for months. She voted against the debt-ceiling deal between McCarthy and Biden earlier this year. Apart from James Comer, she’s been the most visible Republican member of the committee investigating Joe and Hunter Biden’s business dealings. (To borrow an old joke about Chuck Schumer, the most dangerous place in Washington is between Nancy Mace and a TV camera.) And despite her … complicated history with Trump and the fact that Haley endorsed her over a Trump-backed primary challenger last year, Mace remains open to supporting you-know-who in the presidential primary. “I’m willing to bury the hatchet to save the country, and I know President Trump is too,” she told Politico in June, oh so magnanimously.

Nancy Mace is the Elise Stefanik of Nikki Haleys. She’s not technically the worst. But she’s the worst.

What has led her, and us, to this?

In a piece Wednesday at National Review, Jeff Blehar compared Mace to Ted Cruz in how clumsily transparent she’s been about trying to position herself for higher office. But it’s not a perfect analogy: Cruz is nothing if not predictable whereas, as Blehar details, the only thing predictable about Mace is her unpredictability. Perhaps she’ll remain Stefanik 2.0 going forward; perhaps she’ll revert to a more “maverick” Haley-ish posture as the political winds change direction; perhaps she’ll revert to ye olde “conscience of her party” identity.

“Inside the conference, she is a running joke,” one Republican lawmaker told Politico. She’ll retain that identity no matter which other(s) she ends up choosing, I suspect.

But that’s not to say she won’t have the last laugh. She reminds me less of Cruz than she does Donald Trump.

They couldn’t be situated more differently within the party. Trump is a monarch whose word on policy is de facto law, as pro-lifers are discovering. He can be as conservative, nationalist, or moderate as he likes on any given issue and not fear running afoul of Republican orthodoxy. He is Republican orthodoxy. He signed a Paul Ryan-style tax cut into law as president, embraced protectionism in the form of tariffs, and now seems to be eyeing a compromise with the left that would make most abortions legal as a matter of federal law. His party, in stretching to accommodate his policy impulses, will necessarily end up stretching the bounds of its own ideological orthodoxy. And as it does, and voters realign accordingly, the “proper” Republican position in a primary on policy issues will be harder to discern.

Mace is the opposite of a monarch. As Blehar points out, she’s in a swingy district. She has to somehow navigate Democrats, traditional Republicans, and MAGA Republicans, knowing that pandering to any one of those groups risks alienating the others. So, it seems, she’s resolved to … pander to all of them, as incoherent as that might seem. She’s clearly grown more populist as populists have grown in influence on the right, but her multiple political identities allow voters in different factions who are open to voting for her to see whatever they want to see in her record to justify believing that she’s one of them at heart.

She considers herself pro-life, but consistently criticizes her party on abortion. She supported certifying Biden’s victory in 2020 but now sounds content with  a restoration of the coup-plotter. She hated Matt Gaetz for having sabotaged Kevin McCarthy in January but she loves Matt Gaetz for having sabotaged Kevin McCarthy in October. She’s independent-minded and keen for Congress to work on real issues affecting the public, but she’s also forever promising to blow the lid off the Biden crime family.

If a vacancy in the Senate should open in her home state and populists start looking around for a candidate, well, that’s Nancy Mace. And if moderates are eager to head them off with a candidate of their own, that’s also Nancy Mace. Party hack and “maverick,” anti-insurrectionist insurrectionist against McCarthy, she’s all things to all voters. Especially if it gets her on TV.

The modern American right is incoherent because the priorities of the MAGA Party and the Conservative Party are irreconcilable. Mace gets that, so she’s given up caring about trying to reconcile them for the sake of coherence. She wants to win, so she says what she needs to say at any given moment to get her closer to doing that, even if that means voting no on Kevin McCarthy—something Marjorie Taylor Greene and Elise Stefanik refused to do. She’s a player, nothing less and certainly nothing more. She’s a perfect modern Republican. She’s the worst.

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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.