This week, in an angry monologue, conservative commentator Mark Levin called the five GOP congressmen who have vowed to block him the “Five Saboteurs” urging them to relent for the good of the party. For their part, those five, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz and Rep. Andy Biggs, have not been shy about saying no really does mean no. With the knives out just weeks before the January vote for Speaker, how much GOP blood will be spilled, and can a resolution be reached? The answer to that lies in the fact that both the pro and anti-McCarthy sides make some compelling points.
First the case for McCarthy. The most basic fact in his favor is that he has done a good job leading, if not uniting, the factions of the party. This includes gaining the support of prominent populist and MAGA members like Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Is McCarthy a populist warrior? No. Was he a member of the “Young Guns'' along with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, the twin poster boys of the failed Republican establishment? Yes. But unlike Cantor and Ryan, McCarthy has learned to be responsive to voters in the Trump era, and there is good reason to believe that responsiveness is here to stay.
Since the limp red ripple midterm McCarthy has often been compared to Sen Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faced his own populist backlash. The comparison is deeply unfair, it probably doesn’t help that both men’s last names start with the same Irish prefix (as does that of embattled RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel). But aside from etymology, McCarthy and McConnell have handled the populist movement within the GOP vastly differently.
Put simply, McConnell’s disdain for MAGA voters and populism in general is written all over his face. He called his own party’s Trump backed Senate candidates poor quality and generally seems more interested in working with Chuck Schumer than with the Freedom Caucus. McCarthy on the other hand has maintained a good relationship with Donald Trump, whose endorsement he enjoys, and has not bowed to demands to punish the populist members of his caucus every time mainstream media has a meltdown about them.
McCarthy has also indicated that populists will enjoy important committee assignments and maybe more importantly is clearly giving Jim Jordan a very long leash in terms of oversight and investigation, including into the Hunter Biden laptop and the origins of Covid. This is an advantageous division of labor, allowing McCarthy to focus on legislation, under the firm watch of the populist wing. The other thing is, there is simply no other clear candidate for Speaker.
For all the reasons listed above why McCarthy has a strong claim to the speaker's gavel, the five objectors are not without firm justification for their bloody-minded opposition. First and foremost is fear of the famous and long-standing tendency of Republicans to fold like Origami the moment they take the slightest bit of power. GOP voters simply won’t stand for that anymore, especially those in the populist camp, and it is entirely legitimate for Gaetz, Biggs and company to make that clear, even in such dramatic fashion.
Furthermore, the leverage of holding out can gain significant concessions from McCarthy. In fact, we have probably already seen some. In addition to multiple investigations already announced McCarthy has shown openness to at least questioning endless military aid to Ukraine, a hobby horse of the MAGA caucus, though unpopular with most House Republicans. More broadly, conservatives are pushing McCarthy to give members more time to read bills before voting and a more open amendment process. These are important debates to have and you can see why the five objectors don’t want to fold their hand until they are decided.
There are downsides to this brinkmanship, to be sure. House GOP leadership would prefer to be laying groundwork right now, not fighting a desperate political battle within their ranks. But honestly, they are laying that groundwork. They are announcing plans and agendas under the assumption that McCarthy takes the Speakership, which is still the most likely outcome.
There are three possible things that can happen here. One, the objectors agree to support McCarthy before the vote, which seems implausible just at the moment. Two, they hold firm, refuse to back McCarthy and set the whole thing on fire. In this case, it is very possible that moderate Republicans would work with Democrats to choose the Speaker. To be fair, Republicans, like Rep. Don Bacon, who is threatening such a move, are also playing with fire here.
The third option is that the objectors wring every last concession they can out of a sweating McCarthy and wind up voting for him while plausibly claiming important victories. This is hardball politics. It's not pretty. But if that is how it all plays out it will be a win for McCarthy, a win for the populists and very likely a win for GOP voters and the American people.