Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
the national interest

Why House Republicans Keep Eating Their Own

A party that refuses to share power turns its rage inward.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The House Republican majority is currently paralyzed by an internecine power struggle that, like some ninth-century Byzantine religious schism, is simultaneously all-consuming to the participants and utterly inscrutable to outsiders.

Reporters attempting to discern the conflict have taken to describing the competing factions as “conservatives” (the far-right members opposed to Kevin McCarthy’s bid for Speaker of the House) and “moderates” (the much larger faction of Republicans loyal to him). But these labels do very little to clarify the strange mania devouring the House Republican caucus. If you define conservative in traditional terms — meaning loyal to the conservative movement of Goldwater and Reagan and opposed, in principle, to any new taxation or social-welfare benefits — the entire Republican caucus is composed of conservatives. McCarthy’s loyalists aren’t moderates and don’t describe themselves as such.

Indeed, the division has barely any real ideological content at all. What Republicans are fighting over is whether to accept the limits of sharing power.

One of the key differences between the two major parties is that Democrats accept the reality that their agenda is not going to move forward when the opposing party occupies the White House. Democratic partisans might grow angry at their leaders for failing to stop it, but members of Congress generally understand that there are limits to the power of the opposition, and even the most unrealistic Democratic rank-and-file voters don’t expect their leaders to actively advance liberal policy in the face of a Republican president. Progressive Democrats wanted to defend Obamacare from Donald Trump’s repeal attempt. They weren’t demanding that Nancy Pelosi somehow force Trump to enact Medicare for All.

Republican voters, by contrast, expect and demand that the conservative agenda be advanced even — perhaps especially — under Democratic presidents. The Republican caucus is routinely gripped by frenzied efforts to compel Democratic presidents to roll back the welfare state. Newt Gingrich shut down the government to pressure Bill Clinton to sign a capital-gains tax cut and reductions to Medicaid and Medicare. Republicans used both shutdowns and the debt ceiling to try to blackmail Barack Obama into repealing his signature health-care plan.

This is why Democrats tend to splinter when they hold power but unify in opposition while the reverse holds true for Republicans. Democratic demands expand when the party holds full control of government and contract in opposition. Republican aspirations paradoxically become more grandiose during Democratic presidencies, which draw Republican minds deeper into the fever swamps of hysteria, making them more insistent on demands for maximal confrontation. These demands are inevitably impossible, causing Republicans to turn, again and again, against their own leaders.

By way of illustration, take this op-ed by Representative Bob Good, one of the anti-McCarthy rebels. “We must elect a speaker who will utilize the power of the purse as leverage to restore fiscal sanity and defund the government tyranny we campaign against,” he writes. “For the good of the Republican conference, for the good of Congress and for the good of the country, let’s hope Republican leaders will listen to the will of their constituents and vote for transformational change on Jan. 3.”

Good believes that the Biden administration is imposing “government tyranny” and that the House will somehow bring it to an end through a funding agreement with the Biden administration. He believes the House should be a venue for “transformational change.” Many political activists and candidates have called for transformational change, but only on the right wing is it considered normal to expect this to happen while the other party controls the presidency.

Or consider this statement by Citizens for Renewing America executive director Wade Miller and reported in the conservative Daily Caller:

Kevin McCarthy is the essence of the uniparty swamp, where two parties pretend to oppose each other, offer show votes to demonstrate theoretical differences of opinion, but then always work together to advance and fund the woke and weaponized government leviathan that is leading the way in destroying our communities through the direct funding of incremental cultural Marxism.

The putative complaint against McCarthy’s leadership is that he advanced “incremental cultural Marxism” through government funding. Of course, no such thing exists, which means McCarthy has no way to redress the complaint. The far right is angry about the Biden administration’s continued existence and wishes to blame the leadership for this fact.

Because this anger has no productive channel, it returns again and again in the form of internal recriminations. The House caucus during Democratic presidencies for the last quarter-century has been an endless procession of coup attempts. Gingrich was deposed for failing in his holy mission of forcing Clinton to slash government. John Boehner and Paul Ryan were driven into retirement. The House Republican caucus will be a cauldron of rage, because the party, at its core, does not believe it should be forced to share power.

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Why House Republicans Keep Eating Their Own