It brings me great pleasure to report that on Oct. 3, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy lost his job after his fellow Republican, Matt Gaetz of Florida, filed a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair. Seven other House Republicans joined Gaetz, and all the Democrats, in voting to remove McCarthy as speaker. At the time of writing, Republicans remain unable to elect a new speaker; Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina currently serves in a pro tempore capacity.
Days before his defenestration, McCarthy backtracked on the agreement he had made with Joe Biden during the summer’s debt ceiling crisis, putting forward a budget bill in September which included deep cuts to government spending and tighter border policies to appease the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. The Senate countered with a bipartisan spending package that maintained existing funding levels and included additional aid for Ukraine; McCarthy ultimately agreed to a 45-day stopgap measure, pegged at existing spending levels but without the additional aid to Ukraine. The short-term funding bill ultimately passed the House with 209 Democrats and 126 Republicans voting for it and was signed into law.
That, to his fellow Republicans, was McCarthy’s crime. Hardliners like Gaetz argued that McCarthy had broken his word to the Freedom Caucus by not insisting on spending cuts, even if that meant a government shutdown. By passing a bill with so many Democratic votes, McCarthy, according to Andy Biggs of Arizona, was “maintain[ing] the Biden-Pelosi-Schumer spending levels and policies” and “allowed the D.C. Uniparty to win again.”
House Democrats, too, felt that the speaker was untrustworthy. After Jan. 6, McCarthy first condemned Trump’s role in the insurrection, then flew down to Mar-a-Lago to make nice. The speaker reneged on the spending deal he cut with Biden over the summer, then gave Democrats an hour to read the 71-page stopgap bill before voting on it. He opened an impeachment inquiry, despite Republican congressmen admitting that they do not have evidence of President Biden committing high crimes or misdemeanors. Still, Democrats were reportedly open to saving the speaker’s bacon — but McCarthy refused to offer any concessions in exchange for their votes.
But what’s truly ironic is that there was a time, not so long ago, when Kevin McCarthy was the right-winger going up against the Republican establishment. In 2015, when John Boehner of Ohio stepped down as speaker after facing a rebellion from the Freedom Caucus, McCarthy made a bid for the top job — as the right-wing faction’s preferred candidate. He ended up dropping out after making a Benghazi-related gaffe, saying presciently, “I am not that guy.” The job ended up going to Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
The hardliners in the caucus favor extreme economic policies — as does the rest of the party. The House GOP’s opening budget proposal, from the spring, called for drastic cuts to government spending: 45 percent from foreign aid; 43 percent from housing programs; 50 percent from the FBI’s counterintelligence program; eliminating Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which provides subsidized healthcare to the poor; and adding work requirements to SNAP.
These extreme stances are a drag at the ballot box. Research by Split Ticket, an elections analysis blog, has found that the most right-wing members of the Freedom Caucus run about 7.3 percentage points behind the average Republican candidate. If extremism costs votes, then why doesn’t the party make more of an effort to nominate moderates?
“Republicans have created an incentive structure where their primary voters tend to reward the most extreme candidates, who in turn are seen as crazy by the electorate and have a track record of underperforming,” Armin Thomas ’21, one of the founders of Split Ticket, told me.
Of course, there is one exception to this rule: Donald Trump. Because he is so far ahead in the 2024 primary, and so beloved by the Republican base, Trump can afford to take on a more moderate posture in anticipation of the general election. For example, despite having appointed three of the six justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, Trump has publicly criticized Ron DeSantis’s ’01 six-week abortion ban as a “terrible mistake,” saying it’s “probably better” to leave the issue to the states.
But we cannot forget that if Trump wins back the White House, it will be the same hard-right committee chairs in Congress who dictate policy.
MILAN SINGH is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column, “All politics is national,” runs fortnightly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.