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The ‘spoiler caucus’ is creating chaos

When a tiny minority can dominate the majority, you have a structural problem

Governing by shakedown doesn’t work, Winston writes. Above, Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Scott Perry and Rep. Matt Gaetz walk to a meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday night.
Governing by shakedown doesn’t work, Winston writes. Above, Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Scott Perry and Rep. Matt Gaetz walk to a meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

More than 100 years ago, Winston Churchill told a gathering at London’s National Liberal Club, “Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business.” 

It still is.

Choosing the speaker of the House is serious business indeed. Yet, 20 members of the Republican conference have shown themselves to be more disruptive than serious legislators. They were given the opportunity to make their case for an alternative leader to Kevin McCarthy in November and failed to convince their colleagues.

In the post-election Republican conference, McCarthy easily won his bid to become his party’s nominee for speaker by a huge 188-31 margin. But on Tuesday, 20 Republican members decided to ignore their conference’s decision and voted against McCarthy, denying him the speakership. 

At this point (Thursday afternoon), with 201 Republicans supporting McCarthy and 20 still opposed, 10 percent of the Republican conference members are dictating what the other 90 percent can and can’t do. This lack of respect for their colleagues at this scale is nothing less than a rejection of the conference itself and the concept of majority rule. 

How did Republicans end up in this extraordinary situation? In the last election, according to Edison Research exit polls, Republicans ended up with their best party ID advantage (+3) from 1984 forward. However, they lost independents by 2 points (47 percent to 49 percent). This resulted in Republicans winning 222 seats, less than expected. 

For some context, in 2010, Republicans were even with Democrats in terms of party ID but won independents by 19 points. This resulted in Republicans winning 242 seats, a 20-seat difference. This disappointing outcome in the election has given 20 members, a small minority of the Republican conference, the ability to play spoiler in a way they couldn’t in the past — and the party is paying the price. 

History shows us that political parties, wherever they are found, almost always have a few rebels and radicals in the ranks pushing hard for change. It’s one of the reasons the House speakership has always been such a difficult and demanding job. It requires a leader with the ability to balance the interests of the country, the members and the electoral coalition that delivered the House majority to his or her party. Not an easy job under the best of circumstances, made even more difficult without a unified conference.

In true Don Quixote style, the members of this group of 20 seem to see themselves as the true drivers of change, destroying the bad and helping the good — principled fighters for change in what they like to call “the swamp” of Washington, D.C. 

They seem sure in the belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong, as they justify upending what should have been a great moment for House Republicans this week as the gavel returned to the GOP. It was an opportunity to showcase just what a Republican House will mean to the country and to voters in real terms. But as the old saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression.

It would be wrong, however, to assume this fight is a one-off moment, driven by personal animus toward McCarthy. That may be the motive behind some of the 20 objectors, but this fight has been a long time in coming. It began with similar efforts directed at prior Republican speakers. 

Now, McCarthy is the target, a leader who spent most of the past two years working to build a majority coalition, working with Republican members to produce an effective policy document (the Commitment to America), flying to competitive districts to help Republican candidates, and raising hundreds of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates, some of whom have joined in undermining his conference nomination. 

Beyond McCarthy, this delay in choosing the next speaker comes at the very moment when voters are expecting speedy action on key policies and promises made during the campaign. But instead of creating energy policies that will help drive down inflation or passing legislation to stop the hiring of 87,000 new IRS agents, voters see House Republicans in disarray, unable to even swear themselves in, much less set a positive policy course for change. Their efforts are also taking time off the legislative clock when House Republicans could be pursuing much-needed oversight. 

The 20’s push to replace McCarthy has even failed to produce a candidate who could get more than 20 votes, much less actually win. Demanding rule changes and committee assignments outside the perimeters of the conference will do little to change the minds of the colleagues who defeated their efforts in November. 

So far, their “principled” crusade has proven only that governing by shakedown doesn’t deliver leadership. It produces chaos — and bad blood among colleagues.

Until the conference is working together again to move forward, the 20 objectors are achieving little at great cost to whoever is the next speaker. When a tiny minority can dominate the majority, you have a structural problem that threatens party effectiveness. This is not a sustainable doctrine for a working majority coalition or choosing leadership.  

Unfortunately, the 10 percenters don’t seem to fundamentally understand what a majority coalition entails, especially for the House speaker, who must balance the relationship between base members from solid red districts and those from tough swing districts. 

Going forward, the importance of conference unity cannot be underestimated. Majority coalitions fall apart when base members and swing members fail to work together, and the party pays the price. Too often, base members forget that 58 percent of the electorate is not a part of either party base. In the past election, only 25 percent of voters said they were conservative Republicans, while 17 percent called themselves liberal Democrats. 

I don’t know what the outcome of the House leadership fight will be, but when I see Democrats celebrating even as they are about to lose the gavel, I know it is damaging the Republican Party and it needs to end, not just for Republicans, but for the country as well.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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