Making Sense of the Speaker Choice
Where's the coalition?
Feathers of Hope is a network of ordinary citizens who joined together around a shared commitment to diminishing the power and influence of MAGA extremists in the chamber.
Since January, we have been urging moderate Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives to form a bipartisan majority voting bloc for the purpose of electing a new Republican Speaker, one who owes nothing to the minority MAGA group.
On Wednesday, October 25, Republicans made a different choice. Rejecting the idea of a cross-party alliance, they voted unanimously to elect a MAGA-affiliated Speaker.
We remain committed to defending the institution of the House of Representatives.
We remain committed to diminishing the power and influence of MAGA extremists in the People’s House.
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The unanimous Republican vote electing Mike Johnson (R-LA) Speaker of the House was both unexpected and unlikely.
After three weeks of in-fighting and acrimony among various factions within the Republican Party, it appeared to most observers that no candidate would be able to unite the Conference.
The MAGA extremist faction which had voted to remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy would not support his deputies, Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Tom Emmer (R-MN).
Traditional establishment Republicans would not vote for MAGA representative Jim Jordan (R-OH).
With no apparent path to secure 217 Republican votes, some moderate Republicans were quietly meeting with Democrats to explore the terms of forming a bipartisan majority coalition that would support a consensus Republican Speaker. Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-CA) confirmed these meetings were taking place during an interview on the PBS Newshour. Asked directly whether conversations about a bipartisan resoultion were being held with Republicans, he replied:
“I know that there are. This is more than just empty rhetoric or talking points. We have to make sure we avoid a government shutdown, make sure we provide aid to Israel and Ukraine. And by the way, those are things that have 300 + votes in Congress.”
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, highly influential Representative Don Bacon (R-NE) rejected the idea of broadening the powers of Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry (R-NC ), suggesting that instead Republicans should work with Democrats to find a consensus candidate.
When Republicans met behind closed doors on Tuesday, October 24, they chose Mike Johnson (R-LA) as their next candidate for Speaker. But twenty-two of their members were not in attendance, so the prospect of his winning the gavel appeared unlikely.
Something happened to change the expected outcome.
In the wake of Mr. Johnson’s election as Speaker, most journalists and broadcast analysts focused on who he is rather than how he secured the victory. To the extent that any explanations were sought, the most commonly expressed conclusion has been fatigue. Republicans simply grew tired of the process, we’ve been told. Embarrassed by their apparent inability to govern, they finally settled on a mild-mannered low-profile candidate who had few enemies.
There is some element of truth to this explanation, at least so far as how Mr. Johnson won the nomination at that Tuesday night meeting, where 22 members were not in attendance. But it falls short of addressing the question of why all the moderate traditional Republicans would vote for a MAGA-affiliated canmdidate, after having loudly objected to their obstructionist tactics several times since the debt ceiling conflict last Spring.
Surely fatigue alone would not account for this. Representatives from swing districts, and Republicans from districts carried by President Biden in 2020, have been adamant that being forced to vote for unpopular measures demanded by MAGA extremists were endangering their reelection. That isn’t something that fatigue would allow them to neglect. There must be something more.
What makes sense?
What follows is speculative. It is not based on anonymous tips, inside information, or well-sourced reporting. But it is an explanation that clearly seems far more likely than the fatigue narrative that has taken hold.
The MAGA faction over-played their hand. When Matt Gaetz (R-FL) moved to vacate the chair, he had no reason to believe the motion would pass. Indeed, he declared his intent to introduce the motion repeatedly, perhaps even daily, thus tacitly admitting his expectation that it would fail. But doing so would be entirely consistent with standard MAGA tactics of obstruction and disruption.
Moreover, there had been a contentious split within the Freedom Caucus a few months earlier, with rumors swirling that even Marjorie Greene (R-GA) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) might be expelled from the group. Given the alienation of MAGA’s two most high-profile leaders, Mr. Gaetz’s threat seemed idle at the time. Ms. Greene long ago threw her lot in with Kevin McCarthy, while Mr. Jordan became allied with the Speaker when given a committee chairmanship in January. (Both voted against the motion to vacate, as expected.)
Beyond that, there was reason to believe that Democrats, as a matter of principle, would not agree to taking the unprecedented step of removing a sitting Speaker. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was said to have assured a previous Republican Speaker that they would not do so.
When the motion passed, Mr. Gaetz and his allies had no strategy in place. There had been no organized effort to choose and support a MAGA candidate for the position. When Mr. Jordan finally emerged as the leading Republican candidate, he was still scrambling to assemble 217 votes. In each of three successive rounds of balloting his total fell short by an ever-increasing number.
The MAGA/Freedom Caucus faction was exposed as powerless to do anything more than obstruct. Fox News had appealed to its audience for a phone call campaign in support of Mr. Jordan’s candidacy, but the result was disastrous. Callers were rude and threatening, and the result was a backlash of decisive rejection. The multiple defeats of Jim Jordan revealed that MAGA extremists did not enjoy sufficient support to elect a Speaker on their own.
In a reversal of the January Speakership contest, it was now MAGA who would need to make concessions to attract votes. But unlike in January, this time the negotiations would not be public. The severely weakened MAGA faction has shown itself to be capable of obstruction, but not of leading. It’s inconceivable that any vulnerable swing-district Republican would support a MAGA-affiliated candidate without assurances that there would be no more threats of a government shutdown or forced votes on contentious issues like abortion, or LGBT restrictions.
What makes sense is this: Moderate Republicans, whom we had expected to enter into a bipartisan coalition with Democrats, decided instead to form a coalition within their own party.
Just as the MAGA faction has shown itself incapable of leading, likewise Kevin McCarthy has shown himself to be capable of making promises, but not of keeping them. Since leadership depends on persuasion and trust, it was inevitable that Mr. McCarthy’s tenure would be a failure.
But the desire for party unity is a powerful force, particularly for establishment moderates who value the norms and traditions of the institution. And more immediately relevant, a united party is better positioned to negotiate with Senate Democrats in meetings where Senate and House versions of the same bill are reconciled. A cross-party alliance within the House would put Republicans at a disadvantage during those negotiations.
In June, Representative Bacon made this very point while reacting to the tactics of MAGA extremists. He reminded them that Republicans have to work with a Democratic Senate and a Democratic President in order to govern. This remains as true today as it was when he said this:
“The small group acts like we’re in a parliament in which the House majority can get whatever it wants. In reality, we’re in a bicameral with three branches of government and separation of powers. If we want to get something done it will involve working across the aisle. The small group of GOP individualists want a 100% and will end up with zero.”
What we have today is a working coalition of traditional and far-right factions within the House Republican Party. It appears that the traditional Republicans did not “cave”, but rather achieved a compromise. A weak and inexperienced MAGA-affiliated Speaker would conduct the business of the House while exercising little independent power. With no base of his own in the House and no history of leadership, he’ll be dependent on former Speaker McCarthy’s team to perform the duties of Speaker. That would be the Majority Leader, Steve Scalise, and Majority Whip, Tom Emmer. Also, Mr. McCarthy himself has not disappeared. Now freed of the obligations of Speaker, he continues to enjoy the support of dozens of members for whom he has campaigned and raised money. His influence is substantial.
Indeed, one of the first assurances Mr. Johnson made upon assuming the Speakership was to declare his intention to devolve power away from the Speaker and to the membership. He also has all but promised that a Continuing Resolution would be forthcoming to insure funding the Government at least into January, 2025.
One more thing
Thanks to a weekend report in the Washington Post, we now know that the Tuesday meeting featured a last-minute below-the-radar attempt by Kevin McCarthy to regain his position as Speaker. On the third ballot, which was ostensibly a contest between Johnson and Byron Donalds (R-FL), Mr. McCarthy received 43 write-in votes to place second. (Donalds received only 29).
While this detail seems like little more than a footnote to the bigger story, it reveals a deeper truth. The McCarthy team remains intact and loyal to him. His deputies will continue in their roles as Majority Leader and Majority Whip, suggesting that the inexperienced Mike Johnson will be more figurehead than power player.
Here’s a link to the story referenced above (no subscription required to read):
And here’s an excerpt relevant to our disussion:
Other moderates and governing-focused Republicans echoed that sentiment. They consider Johnson more malleable than McCarthy. Johnson — who told Republicans he met with that he has an “open heart, open mind” — knows he must decide how to spend his political currency and whether to use it to fulfill promises he’s made to lawmakers.
“If he truly believes that only Republicans, as a competent majority can move that open heart, open mind to a more free country then he has to keep the majority by listening to us. Period. There is no other option. So he only has one opportunity, that he should fully recognize, and that’s making sure that he’s paying attention to all the different groups that are within the Republican Party, and who we represent,” one centrist Republican said.
Some are holding him to his word. After Johnson met with several members of the Republican Main Street Caucus, according to one person familiar with the meeting, the lawmakers wrote down the promises Johnson made and sent them to him directly, a marked difference from when holdouts against McCarthy’s speakership in January claimed he made promises that neither group wrote down.
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