Two insurgent battles against party leadership took place over the last two weeks in Albany, New York, and Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital, Republicans fought to elect a speaker of the House against holdouts from an extremist base. In the capital of New York State, Democrats in the state senate rebuffed Governor Kathy Hochul’s controversial pick for the state supreme court. These two fights—using similar tactics but having very different policy implications—hold a lesson for both parties: It may well be that unity is not quite as important as some in party leadership may believe.
Earlier this month, Democrats watched the Republican Party’s pratfalls in electing a speaker of the House with equal parts horror and amusement. It took 15 votes over four days for the GOP to finally elect Kevin McCarthy, and Democrats wisely allowed their opponents to flail rather than coming to their rescue. To many Democrats, Republicans looked fractious, incompetent, and unfit to lead.
This week in New York, Hochul faced intense criticism for strangely insisting on the nomination of Judge Hector LaSalle. LaSalle’s record of rulings against abortion rights, labor unions, and criminal justice reform infuriated progressives, leading to a robust effort to prevent his confirmation to New York’s highest court. Republicans on the state senate’s Judiciary Committee were also unanimous in refusing to help Democrats resolve the internal conflict. At the same time, just enough Democrats stood against LaSalle to impede, if not thwart, his nomination despite a vigorous campaign by Hochul and her establishment allies. Hakeem Jeffries, the Brooklyn congressman and U.S. House minority leader who let McCarthy twist in the wind, has endorsed the LaSalle nomination, as have many Hispanic groups. LaSalle would be the first Latino on New York’s high court.
After the Judiciary Committee rejected LaSalle’s nomination, it’s not entirely clear if it is dead. Hochul insists that the full senate must vote on LaSalle, and she seems likely to try and get the courts to force a vote.
A major difference between the LaSalle and McCarthy messes lies not in tactics but in policy. Progressive Democrats standing against LaSalle are pushing for popular policies. They want a progressive judiciary to uphold them, while the far-right Republicans extracting concessions from House GOP leadership pushed for deeply unpopular actions, including holding the nation’s debt limit hostage.
During the McCarthy leadership battle, House Democrats were united: Every member from the most conservative to the most progressive cast their ballot for Jeffries, driving home the point that Democrats are united and ready to govern, while Republicans are beholden to their most extreme elements.
But below the surface, things are not quite so evident in the House Democratic Caucus. First, it is speculative to suggest that voters will reward Democrats for their unity or will punish Republicans for their fractiousness. The mainstream press has been running “Democrats in Disarray” headlines for so long it has become an easily mocked cliché. But Democrats have nonetheless dominated the popular vote in presidential elections for the last several decades. Will unanimous votes for Jeffries in January 2023 pay dividends in November 2024 or even local races in June 2023? This seems unlikely.
Similarly, it would be difficult to confidently assert that the Democratic dust-up over LaSalle will carry negative electoral consequences. Hochul, who just won her November election after having been elevated to the governorship in 2021 when Andrew Cuomo resigned over sexual harassment allegations, obviously thinks she can brave this fight. Her allies seem to believe that nominating a more conservative justice will inoculate the governor from conservative attacks; progressives believe it will demoralize the Democratic base. But the likeliest outcome is that voters won’t remember any of it in November 2024. Meanwhile, the judicial rulings from New York’s highest court will have meaningful, lasting policy outcomes that voters are unlikely to connect with the current fracas.
For all the drama in the U.S. House of Representatives, the hardline far right won serious and substantive concessions from GOP leadership to get McCarthy the gavel. If anyone knows what is in the secret agreements McCarthy made with Representatives Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert, and the other holdouts, no one is talking. But doubtless, House GOP policy will be more caustically conservative now than it would have been absent the power struggle. Among the wins for the right are seats on the powerful House Rules Committee and a freewheeling investigation of law enforcement and intelligence agencies allegedly being “weaponized” against conservatives.
Meanwhile, the few supposed “moderates” in the House Republican Conference stood down without a fight as usual. A few of them made noises about defying the Gaetz/Boebert wing. Still, only Tony Gonzales of Texas joined Democrats in voting against the rules package that, among other things, ensures that it would take only a single vote to force McCarthy from the speaker’s office. The only legislators willing to oust McCarthy would come from the Gaetz/Boebert wing, which means they hold all the cards.
It’s not the first time, of course, that right-wing tantrums pay off. The Republican Party’s Overton Window has been shifting to the right for years owing to many factors, among them the sheer audacity of the far right. (Ask John Boehner.) Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and fabulist white power sign-flasher George Santos of the pro-McCarthy wing are normalized in the House. Greene seems likely to get a formal leadership role before long. Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has abetted the rightward shift. While Fox News hosts were rooting for McCarthy, they went easy on the holdouts. Indeed, the holdouts who tortured McCarthy won’t face severe retaliation from leadership, the conservative media infrastructure, or ultimately from GOP base voters. Republicans do not punish the bad behavior of those pushing the party to the right.
Will the McCarthy fight and its aftermath cost the GOP persuadable voters? Democrats hope so but perhaps not.
If Republicans suffer losses, it’s not because infighting scares off voters but because what the far right wants is deeply unpopular. If the hardliners vote to slash Medicare and Social Security, they’ll suffer at the polls because it’s unpopular policy. Republicans held the debt ceiling hostage during the Barack Obama administration. The GOP’s unity behind this game of chicken didn’t matter. It was an unpopular tactic, and Republicans suffered in the next election.
Many on the left have taken notice of the hardline posse’s success. Those who advocated two years ago for progressive House members to withhold votes for the speaker to “force the vote” on commitments to support “Medicare for All” and other left-leaning priorities are claiming vindication. They argue that the far right’s aggressive tactics could have worked just as well for them. Whatever the tactics progressives insist, fighting for popular initiatives means better policy and more successful politics.
This argument fails to account for the difference in the cultures of the two parties. Base Democratic voters value bipartisan compromise more than base Republican voters. Centrist Democrats are more willing to make deals with Republicans, and there are precious few moderate Republicans left. President Obama himself attempted a “grand bargain” with the GOP that infuriated many elected Democrats (to say nothing of progressive activists). Still, Republicans refused to take him up on it. The only significant challenges to Nancy Pelosi’s leadership have come from her right, not her left. And liberal pundits and the Democratic leadership are far likelier to punish dissenters within the caucus for creating “division” and causing trouble. So, the progressive squad would likely not have succeeded playing Gaetz-style hardball, and any attempts to do so would probably have backfired.
But Democrats should ask themselves whether that is a healthy culture and whether the obsession with avoiding internal division is driven by voters instead of temporary convenience. These squabbles matter far less to the average voter than to those glued to cable news. If Democrats in New York achieve better judicial outcomes by scuttling LaSalle’s nomination, that will likely do more to boost Democratic performance in the Empire State over the long term than any short-term repercussions from the internal squabble itself.
While much of the Democratic base prizes compromise, there are also legions of infrequent and lapsed Democratic voters who are frustrated with the system and have low trust in institutions. Feeling marginalized, these low-trust voters are unlikely to be unsettled by members sticking it to leadership, and they’re likely to be roused by populist policies. Democrats should remember that they have not only been the party of good governance and fact-based policy but also of protest and “good trouble.” Both sides of the base deserve active representation and, yes, agitation—even if it causes temporary discomfort. A more relaxed approach to internal conflict may yield unexpected benefits without the costs many Democrats fear. Just ask the Republicans.