November 17th, 2023
The American people were told the effort to oust former House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) was about setting the country on a more sustainable fiscal path and securing much-needed funding for our border. It was about oversight for funds sent to overseas conflicts and about prioritizing who America’s allies are and are not. And it was about defunding the “weaponized” government.
In reality, none of that has materialized.
In fact, the continuing resolution (CR) that passed the House this week, and now the Senate, spends $60 billion more than the one negotiated by McCarthy in September. It also fails to fund our greatest ally, Israel, or address China, Russia, and Iran’s unholy alliance supporting anti-American conflicts on multiple fronts.
This is not the fault of the new speaker, Mike Johnson (R., La.). Johnson is a consistent conservative who has the makings to be a great speaker. The problem is the job itself is nearly impossible because of the unhealthy underlying dynamics within the GOP and the broader conservative movement.
A social-media echo chamber that encourages monetization schemes online and in the mail and individual attention-seeking over the hard work of building coalitions has created a cadre of performance artists rather than legislators advancing conservative principles.
In January, it took Kevin McCarthy 15 votes to win the speakership. The vote series and internal dealmaking resulted in three seats being given to the conservative bloc on the powerful House Rules Committee and the creation of a motion to vacate the chair with just one person.
This new power-sharing arrangement was tested early on this year when the House had to deal with the debt limit in May. Conservative Thomas Massie (R., Ky.) broke with the broader House Freedom Caucus and backed the McCarthy plan to raise the debt limit. For this apostasy, he was written out of conservative good graces by many external actors who were itching to push the limits of their new power-sharing agreement. The debt-limit deal ultimately passed and included some conservative victories like the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline. But even those wins were derided on the right because their passage had the backing of Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) and GOP leadership.
“McCarthy has got to go. There’s just no doubt,” said Steve Bannon, who would likely be in jail for mail fraud against the elderly without a last-minute pardon from Trump, in reaction to the May debt-limit deal. But the skirmish foreshadowed the ominous future for the House GOP.
That future arrived as the summer months dwindled. Florida representative Matt Gaetz — who held a long-standing personal grudge against Kevin McCarthy for the latter’s supposed failure to intervene in the House Ethics Committee probe into the former’s sexual misconduct — had been biding his time and waiting for the opportunity to vacate the chair.
The debt-limit deal was the first chance to vacate, but most in Washington knew that the likelier moment for that would come when government funding ran out and Congress had to pass another CR. The terrain of this fight was more well suited for the confrontation, as it would entail the specter of a government shutdown rather than jeopardizing the full faith and credit of the United States.
The telling moment was when one conservative leader, Chip Roy (R., Texas), brokered a deal with House moderates that would have funded the government and won modest spending cuts while securing the border. This proposal was immediately trashed by Gaetz and outside groups who had little interest in helping McCarthy. They attacked the proposal as “malpractice” by making the fight about Donald Trump’s legal battles rather than spending cuts and border security. It was an impressive sleight of hand to shift the goalposts so quickly and in real time, but a sleight of hand nonetheless. The fight was not about winning policy but about laying a predicate for a motion to vacate at any cost. The damage was done and any effort to find a Republican solution that avoided a shutdown was dead.
The problem, of course, is that this strategy not only created chaos and embarrassment for the Republican Party but that it also resulted in no policy victories and only increased spending. If this is saving America, then we’re all in real trouble.
The last six weeks have shown that America needs a conservative movement which returns to its time-honored principles rather than “leaders” following the siren song of populist performance artists. It’s easier — and, for some in our politics, more lucrative — to destroy than to build. So until we get better leaders, we can expect more selfishness, more destruction — and more of the same.
Read more at NationalReview.com.