As of today we are seeing more and more reporting that House Freedom Caucus hardliners may actually force a vote on Kevin McCarthy’s speakership and drive him from office. Like, not the, “we might do this!!!” we’ve heard more or less constantly for the last nine months but, “hey, this might actually happen.” One report said insiders don’t think McCarthy will last past December. While I’m skeptical, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. But let’s remind ourselves that this isn’t a relationship coming apart at the seams or a system going haywire. It’s a system — that of the post-2010 House GOP caucus — working exactly as intended.
The relationship between the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) and a nominally mainstream Republican Speaker is necessary and symbiotic. They not only both need each other; they couldn’t be what they are without the other. We had this with John Boehner and we have it with Kevin McCarthy. The only thing that made Paul Ryan’s tenure slightly different was that his time as Speaker coincided almost entirely with Trump’s presidency, which changed the dynamic.
In practice the HFC — made up of four dozen or so members — controls the great majority of the Republican caucus. They will do what the HFC wants, albeit with various levels of whining. But a member of the HFC could never actually become Speaker. They’d be too toxic nationally, too unpresentable for the main stage. Far more importantly, they could never assemble the votes to pass any of their legislation. They’d fail at it infinitely worse than McCarthy has. They’d be saddled with the fact that they are, in fact, the problem. Not Boehner, not McCarthy, not this or that Deep State RINO behind the tree. Them.
McCarthy meanwhile could never actually remain plausible both in official D.C. and press circles and with GOP partisans nationwide without his HFC partners. It’s the drama of purportedly being stretched to the limits on the rack of HFC demands that allows him to keep one hand in each place simultaneously. “I’m trying to be the adult in the room,” you might imagine him telling the insiders of polite D.C., “but what would you have me do???”
The two sides couldn’t exist without the other. I sometimes imagine that only an anthropologist from a foreign country speaking a different language could ever persuasively explain the intricacies of this quite functional framework to most of official Washington. They give little evidence of really grasping it.
To illustrate the dynamic let’s assume Matt Gaetz actually forces McCarthy’s ouster. What then? We’re seeing chatter that members of HFC and members of the “Main Street” group are looking for a so-called “unity candidate” to replace McCarthy and thus make his ouster possible. Think how preposterous this is: The real and only beef with McCarthy is that he has not delivered the goods for House hardliners. In fact, he has dedicated his whole Speakership to delivering their goods. (Again, this is a functional system, working as intended.) He has done so to the point where the House is now entirely incapable of functioning — not only incapable of negotiating with the Senate and White House but incapable of figuring out what it might want to negotiate. He has greenlit their impeachment inquiry which rolled into a ditch on its first day out and he has increasingly endangered the couple dozen Republicans sitting in non-single party seats. McCarthy already is the unity candidate. There’s no unity possibility between the HFC and Republicans not sitting in single party districts. They want diametrically opposed things.
Of course, the choreographed jostling can occasionally get out of hand leading to a change of power. Boehner was never booted. He decided to leave on his own. Maybe Gaetz, based on his own ferality, will force the matter. Perhaps our foreign anthropologist would explain to us that the hardliners must, every few years, run a skewer up through the gut of a Speaker and roast them alive over a fire just to keep people thinking the whole thing is real. Who knows?
In other words, maybe they really will oust Kevin McCarthy. But he can only be replaced by another Kevin McCarthy. That’s the system. And like most stable systems, that’s how they perpetuate themselves.