We Need to Talk About Kevin
What's the right play for Democrats faced with a House speaker gasping for air?
A new episode of #DogShirtTV is on the schedule: Ruth Ben-Ghiat will join me on November 20 at 5:00 pm (note the special time, please) to discuss her book, “Strongmen: How they Rise, Why They Succeed, and How They Fall.”
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Question of the day: Should Democrats throw a lifeline to Kevin McCarthy?
The New York Times reports:
The hard-right move to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy from his post has presented House Democrats with a tricky question: Should they help rescue the California Republican who has worked against their agenda and recently opened an impeachment inquiry against President Biden?
Mr. McCarthy’s slender majority and the size of the band of right-wing rebels working to depose him mean that he has little chance of surviving a vote to keep his job — which requires a majority — without at least some support from Democrats.
But it is nearly unheard-of for members of the minority to vote for the opposing party’s candidate for speaker. Top party officials suggest that, given Mr. McCarthy’s multiple partisan transgressions, they would be exceedingly unlikely to do so now without a clear-cut commitment from him to engage Democrats more in governing.
“I am not a cheap date,” said Representative James P. McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, who, like other Democrats, said he had serious trust issues with the speaker.
Here’s the raw arithmetic. Matt Gaetz has introduced a motion to vacate the chair—which effectively means a motion to depose McCarthy. Gaetz’s pack of crazed slavering jackals is of indeterminate size, but the Outpatient Caucus is almost certainly large enough, when combined with the Democrats in the House, to deprive McCarthy of the majority he needs to stay in office.
The Democrats, of course, dislike McCarthy for reasons of their own: He’s been slavishly solicitous of the jackals until the moment they decided to feast on his flesh anyway. He hasn’t honored deals he’s made, particularly with respect to budgetary matters. And he just launched a completely meritless impeachment inquiry against a president not actually accused of having done anything wrong.
So the case for voting against the speaker is pretty simple: McCarthy is a pathetic duplicitous rodent who deserves to be eaten by the jackals whose asses he was kissing until the other day. It’s not the Democratic caucus’s job to govern for the Republican caucus. And hey, there’s serious political benefit to be had by letting the Republicans wallow in their own dysfunction. January was good for the Democrats.
On the other hand, one doesn’t have to be too Machiavellian to see the attraction of a Republican Speaker of the House who wholly depends on Democratic votes for every additional day he stays in office. Let’s remember that McCarthy seems to care about exactly nothing of substance. And he deeply loves being speaker and we don’t know just how far he will go to remain in the chair.
So just as he was slavishly devoted until last week to keeping happy the jackals who controlled his fate, one assumes Hakeem Jeffries is asking himself today whether McCarthy would be equally slavish—if perhaps more quietly so—in his devotion to keeping Democrats happy if he depended on their votes.
But that raises the tricky question of what Democrats can actually get. McCarthy, after all, is not one of them. And he cannot be seen by his own rank and file to be acting as a captive Democratic speaker. If he does, his own members will abandon him to the jackals, and Democrats don’t have enough votes to elect a speaker on their own; if they did, Jeffries would be in the chair.
So the formula here—if there is one—would have to involve giving Democrats something serious enough to be worth it to them to support McCarthy (or vote “present” or just not show up for the vote at all) while being subtle enough about it so that GOP members don’t perceive it all as a Democratic takeover of the chamber.
The need for subtlety actually makes the problem hard. The national press corps is watching these events carefully, and one of the of shortest measurable units of time is the time between anyone in the GOP caucus feeling betrayed and when that person starts braying about it on Fox News. Anything like a contract of indenture between McCarthy and the Democrats would immediately leak and end McCarthy’s political life. You don’t want a “deal” with McCarthy. You want to zombify him remotely.
The question, then, becomes how to make McCarthy into something like a Democratic zombie while making him appear to be his own man. It may not be possible—in which case the Democrats will and should vote to throw McCarthy to the jackals and enjoy the show.
If there is a formula, however, I think it ironically involves putting the structure of dependency ahead of the specific policy concessions demanded—that is, appearing to be a “cheap date” but making sure the House rules enable the jackals to do this again at any time and relying on McCarthy’s dependency to zombify him. It would look something like this:
There is no “deal” between McCarthy and the Democrats. Rather, Jeffries and the Democrats simply declare that this is an internal Republican problem and that they are not going to throw the House into chaos by deposing the speaker with only 45 days to resolve spending matters for the year. They then vote present or don’t show up for the House vote, letting the House Republican majority that supports McCarthy keep him in office.
McCarthy crows about a big a win and how he has the support of the overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus.
'Jeffries should then publicly convey that his forbearance does not mean the Democrats will decline to support future motions to vacate the chair if governance of the House does not improve. This will send a message to the jackals to keep circling and try again any time they like.
Jeffries would then privately convey to McCarthy his minimum demands—the changes that have to happen for Democrats to continue to prop up McCarthy’s speakership.
McCarthy can thus spin his “victory” any way he wants. But he would do so knowing that the jackals will be back, and he has this list of things the Democrats demand by way of continuing to tolerate him.
What should be on that list? I could make a long list of specific items, and Jeffries certainly should do so, but they all boil down to one big principle: No party-line votes. Bills should pass the House with 300 votes. If Democrats can establish a framework in which this is the incentive structure, it is worth keeping McCarthy around as the dead-man-walking face of it.
If not, feed him to the jackals.
This nice Icelandic lullaby about Vladimir Putin is #YourMusicOfTheDay:
Today’s #BeastOfTheDay is this guy: