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Now that a Republican splinter faction led by Representative Matt Gaetz has queued up a “motion to vacate,” the fate of Kevin McCarthy speakership rests with Democrats.
So what should they do? Does it serve Democratic interests to keep McCarthy, or fire him?
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Before answering the question whether it’s in the Democratic interest to save McCarthy we should first answer another:
Are Democrats better off by working with Republicans to make Washington functional, or by standing aside while Republicans make Washington dysfunctional?
It’s a tricky question. Democrats gain political advantage by portraying themselves as the responsible adults and Republicans as irresponsible extremists. But being responsible—investing in infrastructure, raising the debt limit, keeping the government open—requires working with at least some Republicans.
And with Republicans now in control of the House, however tenuously, exercising responsibility also requires working with the Speaker.
Munching popcorn while Republicans cannibalize each other is all fun and games … until real people start to get hurt.
For example, if four months ago Republican fractiousness led to a breach of the debt limit and a global depression, a don’t-blame-me message from Joe Biden wouldn’t impress voters much. After all, he was elected to restore normalcy.
If the federal government had shut down this week, Republicans would surely deserve the blame, as I recently explained for the Monthly. But if a protracted shutdown inflicted lasting damage on the economy, perhaps triggering a recession, Biden’s re-election would still be threatened.
At the start of the year, the fear gripping Democrats was that Republicans had become so nihilistic and craven that they wouldn’t think twice about being political arsonists if it meant defeating Biden.
While some of the House Republicans fit that bill, McCarthy has now shown us twice that he does not—first with the debt limit deal, then with the stopgap bill to keep the government open.
There’s plenty to dislike about McCarthy. His occasional outbursts of honesty regarding Trump are quickly negated by sycophancy. He is not above using House investigations as a political weapon. (Eight years before he greenlit the Biden impeachment inquiry, he boasted how the House investigation of the Benghazi incident was dragging down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers.) He has shown little interest or capacity to find common ground on pressing policy challenges such as disorderly immigration and a warming climate.
Yet he has proven willing to take political risks so we keep the government open and pay our debt obligations. It may be the lowest bar. But he clears it. And Democrats need him to clear it.
Minimal bipartisan cooperation behooves McCarthy as well. Two years ago I wrote that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was going light on filibusters because he didn’t “believe [Republicans] can escape all blame for any unpopular obstruction.” McCarthy appears to share McConnell’s rational view. Of course they want to defeat Biden, but they see plenty of downside for Republicans in trying to defeat him by destroying America.
House Democrats are questioning not only whether to bail out McCarthy, but whether to demand concessions in exchange for a bailout. For example, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal has suggested rule changes so Democrats have “real power over the floor, over committees.”
I wish Democrats luck in their bargaining attempts. But the hard truth is: a Speaker McCarthy is more valuable to Democrats than any Gaetz-approved alternative. Bailing him out, with or without extra concessions, is in the Democratic interest.
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