It’s Not the Job of Democrats to Save the GOP

It’s Not the Job of Democrats to Save the GOP

It’s Not the Job of Democrats to Save the GOP

Helping Republicans pick a House speaker makes sense only if it intensifies the right-wing civil war.


Oscar Wilde reportedly dismissed Charles Dickens’s mawkish novel The Old Curiosity Shop by quipping, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” In the spirit of Wilde, we can survey the disarray among congressional Republicans and conclude that it would take a heart of stone not to gleefully chortle at the misery of would-be House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Like a Dickensian orphan, McCarthy has undergone humiliation after humiliation, repeatedly abasing himself before the likes of Donald Trump and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene in a desperate quest to be crowned head of the House.

For his troubles, McCarthy finds himself rejected time and again. McCarthy’s ordeal might be worthy of pity—if he himself weren’t such a reprehensibly oily enabler of the far right.

McCarthy’s difficulty in securing the speakership isn’t just a personal ordeal but evidence of the Republican Party’s inability to govern. House Republicans have a knife-slim majority of 222 seats in a body of 435 representatives. The Democrats have 212 seats. McCarthy—or any other candidate—needs 218 votes to secure the speakership. The Democrats are united but fall short of that number. The Republicans have the votes, but remain divided in how they cast them.

The party’s slender majority has ensured that Republican leaders are caught in a bidding war between two competing factions of MAGA extremists: those like Greene who have already cut a deal with McCarthy and those like Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar who want even more concessions from GOP leadership. Some of the demands of the holdouts are truly frightening. As Ryan Grim of The Intercept reports, North Carolina Republican Ralph Norman is demanding that McCarthy “shut down the government rather than raise the debt ceiling.”

Given this mess, it’s not surprising that some centrists are offering an unorthodox and implausible scenario: that the Democrats step in and save the GOP by coalescing behind an alternative candidate, a moderate Republican. Writing in The New York Times, William S. Cohen and Alton Frye, both long-serving apparatchiks in the national security establishment, argue that the Democrats could “offer motions to open the possibility of selecting a speaker capable of working across the aisle. Nominating an experienced, respected Republican from outside the House could trigger a contested ballot leading to a speaker in the mold of the original constitutional conception.” Among the possible candidates that Cohen and Frye suggest are former Ohio governor John Kasich, outgoing Michigan Representative Fred Upton and outgoing Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. Steven Benen, a producer at MSNBC, made a similar pitch for Upton as a potential speaker.

This list of names highlights the main problem with the proposal. Kasich and company are all either retired or on the way out precisely because their more-moderate faction of the GOP is near extinction. There is a reason the current House Republican spectrum runs from opportunistic allies of the hard right (like McCarthy) to the nihilist right (like Gosar and Gaetz). So it’s hard to imagine that there’s a sufficient number of currently serving Republicans who would join with the Democrats to create Speaker Kasich, Speaker Upton, or Speaker Hogan.

More to the point, why should the Democrats join in a bargain to save the GOP, a rival party self-destructing in an entertaining civil war? It’s not the job of Democrats to help the Republicans to govern—or to present a more moderate, but false, face to the world. Democrats’ success in recent elections has hinged precisely on making it clear to voters that the GOP is an extremist party incapable of governing—an argument dramatically vindicated by the ongoing farce in the House.

To be sure, Democrats might still be wise to make a deal with Republicans—if it were politically advantageous. There’s some evidence that the Democrats are amenable to horse-trading. Speaking on MSNBC on Tuesday, Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez noted,

“McCarthy’s team may have to come to the Democratic Party. And if that’s the case, then what would that even look like? It’s rather unprecedented. Could it result in a potential coalition government? Could we get Democratic chairs of committees as a result? We don’t know.”

Unlike centrists like Cohen and Frye, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t proposing a Democratic compromise that would strengthen the GOP but rather a deal to secure tangible benefits for Democrats.

Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent has fleshed out what Democratic Party demands in negotiations should be. “So McCarthy wants Dem support?” Sargent tweeted. “Dems should make this the condition for *starting* talks: *permanent disabling of debt limit *no Holman Rule defunding investigations of Trump *no BS hearings designed to fake-discredit 1/6 findings *support for Tillis/Sinema-type border plan.”

As Sargent goes on to note, “I don’t actually think McCarthy can be trusted to honor any such deal, and there’s no way he’d accept this anyway.” In other words, any deal that Democrats could reasonably accept would be rejected by any likely coalition of existing House Republicans. Far more likely is a scenario where either McCarthy or some other House Republican does get the GOP holdouts to coalesce around a GOP consensus speaker, but at a cost of binding the party to a full extremist agenda: a game of chicken with the debt ceiling, the impeachment of Joe Biden, and two more years of chaotic governance.

Even in that scenario, it makes sense for Democrats to push for a deal on their terms as a way of highlighting the differences between the two parties. There are 18 congressional Republicans in districts where Joe Biden won the presidential vote in 2020. The Democratic path to reconquering the House in 2024 goes straight through those districts. By offering a deal along the lines Ocasio-Cortez and Sargent suggest, Democrats could highlight the differences between the two parties: one committed to governance, and the other using politics as a theater of expressive rage. The next two years are likely to be chaotic, so Democrats need to keep reminding voters that the GOP is the party of chaos.

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