Taking control of the House chamber used to be fun. Your party installed its leadership after toiling in the minority. You celebrated. Ranking members became chairs, and their pet projects, like the Widget Protection Act and that new Museum of Trucking and Industry, got closer to passage. You got to run the “People’s House.”
Since January, the simple act of agreeing upon a set of leaders has completely flummoxed the Republican House Conference, as if they had walked into a final exam in calculus having skipped every class—but here, all they’re really being asked is to state their names. They are groping for answers, embarrassing themselves, and it only gets worse when they show their work.
The ham-handed efforts of Representative Jim Jordan’s allies—from Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity to the Ohioan’s minions in Congress—to pressure the holdouts resisting his speaker bid backfired and left the former wrestling coach tapping out (for now). Compromise efforts to keep Representative Patrick McHenry as temporary speaker—with enough enhanced power to keep Israel and Ukraine armed and the federal government open—died after a four-hour meeting of House Republicans because all four-hour meetings are doomed.
Across the aisle, the Democrats have responded with unity and precision, like an Olympic rhythmic gymnastics team. They vote for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries unanimously, while their Republican colleagues, who portray Democrats as wasteful and floundering, cannot simply agree on a leader.
Why? Why are Democrats unified at this moment and not the GOP? As I noted a few weeks ago, Democratic disarray used to be endemic and exploited by Republicans. See the 1968, 1972, and 1980 Democratic conventions. Democrats haven’t always done what they’re told. See the defection of House Democrats who voted for Reaganomics. For now, Democrats are unified. But why? Here are some reasons, none of which by itself explains it.
The Pelosi/Jeffries Magic. Are Democrats unified because they have deft, calm, organized leadership, while House GOP members are a bunch of drama queens? There’s no question that Pelosi’s terms as speaker displayed her deft rule—an open door but with a velvet fist. She swatted away challenges to her seat, rewarded allies, hustled money, and protected all of her members. Jeffries seems to have learned well from his Sensei.
But leadership at the top isn’t enough. Thought experiment: If you parachuted a Republican Pelosi into the speaker‘s chair, they could not housebreak this pack of Rottweilers. They’re rabid. So, it’s not just leadership. Maybe it’s the legacy?
Newt’s Kids. A few weeks back, I argued that Matt Gaetz is Newt Gingrich’s spawn. The former speaker of the House may detest Gaetz and has called for his ejection. Still, Gingrich’s fisticuffs and bombast provided the template for Gaetz and the cannibalistic culture in the House that led House Speaker John Boehner to quit and Paul Ryan to walk away from the speaker’s gavel at age 48 after just three years. Unlike Gaetz, Gingrich was smart enough and disciplined enough to build power and become speaker, which Gaetz will never be. (I think.) So, it may just be that the culture of the House is so poisonous that this is what happens, and we can blame Newt…but not entirely, since the House enjoyed relative calm in the aughts under the felonious Denny Hastert.
These Aren’t the Hastert Years. Hastert is the longest-serving Republican speaker in American history, from 1998 to 2007. (He pleaded guilty in 2016 to felony counts of hiding payments he made to young men he admitted to molesting when he was a wrestling coach.) The stability undergirding the Illinois representative’s tenure is due to a non-Trumpian Republican president and Republican nominee. The GOP got much of what it wanted from George W. Bush and Hastert, from tax cuts to ill-considered land wars in Asia. There was relative peace. Without a Republican president or a nominee from Planet Earth, GOP House members have been unmoored by the discipline of needing to pass a presidential agenda. Granted, Ryan gave up the gavel under Donald Trump’s watch. But Trump was an atomizing, not a unifying force, making his displeasure with Ryan well known because the Wisconsinite had the temerity to criticize him—for instance, scolding Trump for saying he couldn’t get a fair shake from a Mexican judge as being an example of “textbook racism” on Trump’s part. So, if you take the Newt legacy and the lack of a semi-normal GOP president, it’s a recipe for chaos. But there’s more.
GOP voters don’t want compromise because they don’t want much from government other than control of it to stop liberals from doing things they hate and fear—and they have been trained in this view by the conservative media ecosystem. Democrats want compromise because they see it as a way to get the activist government programs they want.
Democrats also band together because they have more moderates. That seems like a plausible idea. See this fascinating study showing Democrats have a more moderate base. Republican voters self-identify as conservative considerably more than Democratic voters self-identify as liberal. That makes it harder for the left wing of the Democratic Party to bully its way to victory.
But if you think about it, the more moderate base could just as quickly have caused debilitating ideological intra-party conflict since there are significant progressive elements, too. In the end, even Joe Manchin backed the scaled-back Build Back Better bill when it became the Inflation Reduction Act.
Maybe Democrats owe their unity to what might be called the “principle” principle. One of the most significant powers a minority faction of a party can wield is the argument that their positions are more principled than those of the leadership or the majority. Progressives had this kind of leverage against centrists/moderates on race and corporate power for some years. But the backlash against woke and defunding the police, plus the moderates having shifted quite strongly in favor of deficit spending and against free trade agreements and corporate concentration, has robbed the left of much of that rhetorical power. The far right still has that leverage against conventional mainstream Republicans. Republicans don’t believe in compromise as much as Democrats and independents. See this interesting poll write-up from the Washington Post’s Philip Bump.
The glue of being pro-government may be the biggest reason Democrats are unified, and Republicans aren’t. In the end, moderate Democrats can appeal to progressives to compromise to make government work, which is something both sides—and voters from both Democratic factions cave—crave. Moderate/mainstream Republicans have a hard time making that argument work for them because far-right lawmakers and base Republican voters don’t care so much. Passing the Widget Protection Act not only seems less fun than WWF-style wrestling, it also seems less important to voters who see compromise as appeasement which explains why Jordan hasn’t passed a bill he’s authored in almost 20 years in Congress and why the speaker’s chair is still empty.