Shortly before Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) was elected speaker after more than three weeks of a House in limbo, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) did something that would seem both ungracious and unhelpful: He went on Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast and declared victory. He said the effort he had led to oust Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a move that earned him extensive derision from many colleagues, was paying off.
“If you don’t think that moving from Kevin McCarthy to MAGA Mike Johnson shows the ascendance of this movement and where the power in the Republican Party truly lies, then you’re not paying attention,” Gaetz said.
Gaetz was just stating facts. The hard right won the day.
But the fact that the ringleader of the effort felt comfortable rubbing that in his colleagues’ faces without fear — shortly before the House Republican Conference went on to vote unanimously for his favored outcome — reinforces how the party has allowed the incentive structure to fester, leading to this mess.
It’s true that the more institutionalist wing of the party didn’t keel over immediately. Last week, it stood strong against repeated efforts to install a man with even more history of aligning with the hard right, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). This wing’s denizens even made an important show of calling out threats that Jordan’s allies unleashed — a largely unprecedented and significant development given the apparent impact of intimidation in today’s GOP.
But in the end, that wing took its win in a momentary battle and decided to wave the white flag in the larger war.
In the new speaker, the hard right got a leader of efforts to overturn the 2020 election based on false claims of malfeasance. It got someone very conservative on the issues of abortion and gay rights at a time when the country has moved in the opposite direction — and Republicans worry about how such views play with swing voters. It got someone who has regularly voted against Ukraine funding, despite a majority of House Republicans supporting it. It got someone who has been a leader, alongside Jordan, in spouting conspiratorial allegations, including those about rigged voting machines and the “weaponization” of the federal government.
It’s reasonable to assume that Johnson might handle things somewhat differently now that he will lead the House, rather than just represent the constituents of a district that favored Donald Trump by 24 points. These are different jobs. The speaker must deal with political realities and keep his party electorally viable.
“We have to sacrifice sometimes our preferences, because that’s what’s necessary in a legislative body,” Johnson said after the vote Wednesday, while adding that “we will defend our core principles to the end.”
But certainly, the likes of Gaetz appear to have more of a fighting shot now at avoiding the kinds of bipartisan deals McCarthy occasionally cut.
And for that, they have their own willingness to wreck shop to thank — along with the institutionalist wing’s lack of stomach for such brinkmanship. That institutionalist wing barely put up a fight Tuesday when the hard right, with a crucial assist from Trump, killed off a bid for the job by the much more mainstream House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) in a matter of a few hours — in contrast with the three doomed votes Jordan was allowed, gumming things up for the better part of a week.
Suddenly, the anger over what Gaetz and Co. had done to McCarthy — and any desire to truly send a message that it wouldn’t be countenanced — took a back seat to just getting it over with.
And if it wasn’t clear that’s what just happened, consider the comments Wednesday by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), Gaetz’s ally in ousting McCarthy.
Buck approached the effort to replace McCarthy from a different position — one in line with the institutionalists. He said he opposed Jordan and the first nominee, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), because they wouldn’t say the 2020 election result was legitimate. Yet neither had Johnson, including when given the chance Tuesday night. Buck backed him anyway.
Buck gamely tried to suggest before the vote that Johnson’s actions were less egregious than Jordan’s. But when it was pointed out that Johnson played a significant role, too, Buck seemed to get to the heart of the matter. “I think it’s very important that we get a speaker and that we move forward,” Buck said, according to the Hill.
The problem is that, while this was the expedient move in the moment, it probably only emboldened future efforts of a similar nature. Republicans have to ask themselves how long they’ll keep allowing the likes of Gaetz to lead them around by the tail. Much as Trump has taken hold of the party thanks to Republicans continually deciding to just look the other way in the name of keeping the peace, the speaker drama probably will be replayed until the mainstream holds just as hard a line.
Today is not that day. Nor is tomorrow looking great.