Kevin McCarthy’s official position is minority leader, but as this week demonstrates, it is a titular role only.
McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, faces a conundrum in the form of Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a freshman member who has been called a “cancer” on the Republican Party because of her “loony lies and conspiracy theories”—and that’s in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
While Greene’s views are especially extreme, the dilemma McCarthy faces is an illustration of the broader problem for the Republican Party today: How do you hold one individual accountable for repugnant things you’d previously decided to indulge as a route to victory?
Greene’s list of horrifying statements and beliefs is too long to detail here, but it includes racism and bigotry of all sorts and the espousal of conspiracy theories including Pizzagate and QAnon. Many of these statements came to light during her run for Congress.
Nonetheless, Greene won her race in a safe Republican district and headed to Congress, where she has already reportedly harassed a Democratic lawmaker and filed articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden. More recently, old social-media posts surfaced in which she backed the execution of some congressional Democrats and blamed a major wildfire on a Jewish space laser. In what is either a cruel intentional joke or a breathtaking unintentional one, she was assigned to serve on the House Education and Labor Committee, as well as the Budget Committee.
In a highly unusual rebuke, Democrats announced that they would force a vote on kicking Greene off her committees. That’s a potential twofer for Democrats: They’d rid themselves of Greene, whom many members of Congress find repulsive, and also force Republican members to go on the record as either condemning or condoning her. McCarthy tried to find an escape hatch. First, he reportedly went to Greene, hat in hand, and basically begged her to disavow her past comments or simply step down from the committees herself. If she didn’t, he warned, Republicans might remove her from the committees themselves.
Greene’s response would not have come as a surprise to anyone even slightly familiar with her: She refused, and sent some inflammatory tweets about it. Then McCarthy tried to cut a deal with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to remove Greene from the education committee in exchange for canceling the vote. That apparently didn’t work either, and yesterday, Democrats announced a vote for today to strip Greene of her assignments. During a caucus meeting Wednesday night, Greene reportedly offered a weak partial apology (really more of a non-apology) and received a standing ovation from colleagues.
The sequence shows McCarthy is not in charge of his caucus in any meaningful way. Now his members face a painful vote on Greene. On the one hand, she is a dangerous lunatic espousing horrifying lies, and her positions are damaging to the Republican Party and the nation; not voting to strip her assignments is a moral abdication. On the other hand, she is a reliable Republican vote. Significant portions of the Republican base believe in the same conspiracy theories as Greene, so voting to remove her risks alienating some of the party’s most enthusiastic base voters and small donors, along with former President Donald Trump, who has backed Greene and (according to her) remains in touch.
Put more finely, the Republican Party will struggle to win national elections without purging people like Greene, but individual members will struggle to win GOP primaries if they do purge them. (Already, Democrats have rolled out a TV ad targeting eight Republican representatives for enabling Greene.)
The puzzle for Republicans is what to do when many of your voters, donors, and activists believe things that you think are crazy. Recently, their answer has been to grit their teeth and embrace the crazy. Although the GOP has long had conspiracy theorists within its ranks, when voters nominated Donald Trump for president in 2016, they placed one at the top of the ticket. Insiders expected that Trump would lose, but he didn’t. Some party elders thought that they’d be able to control Trump, or at least nudge him, once he was in office. They were wrong again.
Yet despite those failures, when Greene surfaced, the GOP tried to handle her in precisely the same way. When her abhorrent beliefs first came to light during the 2020 primary, many leaders condemned her and threw their support behind a rival candidate. When he lost, they meekly slunk back to Greene.
“Greene could have a devastating impact on the Republican party at-large,” a top House GOP aide warned The Dispatch back in August. “It’s one thing to have fringe members who represent very ideological districts. It’s quite another to have a member who is an avowed conspiracy theorist and traffics in hateful rhetoric that offends the vast majority of Americans. Embracing someone like that will unquestionably turn off the voters who determine congressional majorities.”
The party could have disavowed her entirely. Greene probably would have won her deep-red district anyway, but at least Republican leaders could have kept her at arm’s length. Instead, they embraced Lyndon Johnson’s famous calculation about J. Edgar Hoover: Better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.
It didn’t work. McCarthy brought Greene inside the tent, but she’s doing her damage there. Leadership just doesn’t have much leverage against a member like Greene, who has strong grassroots support and Trump’s backing. Her views are just as abhorrent as before, appalling revelations continue to surface, and McCarthy has no control. He evidently didn’t have the votes within his own caucus to strip her of her assignments, and even if he had, she’s plainly not in Washington to do the hard work of legislating. For the same reason, threatening to block her bills won’t help. The party could withdraw campaign funding, but she’d likely to be able to plug that hole with small donors. The House could expel her, but it seems likely she’d just run and win again. Greene is doing exactly what she promised to her constituents when she ran.
The whole situation is reminiscent of how Republican leaders tried to handle Trump’s spurious claims of a fraudulent 2020 election. (Not coincidentally, Greene has also backed those bogus claims.) They knew that the election hadn’t been stolen, but they also didn’t want to get crosswise with Trump or his fervent followers. McConnell and several other high-profile Republicans declined to acknowledge Biden’s victory until after the Electoral College voted on December 14. When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (acting as a sock puppet of the Trump campaign) filed a bogus Supreme Court case to overturn the results, 126 House Republicans signed a brief in support—including McCarthy and his deputy, Minority Whip Steve Scalise.
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” a senior Republican official told The Washington Post in November. And if the result did change … well, that just meant Republicans kept the White House.
The problem is that many people did think the results would change. When it became clear that neither the courts nor Vice President Mike Pence was going to hand Trump a second term, a violent mob stormed the Capitol with an eye toward overturning the election, and perhaps lynching some members of Congress or Pence.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, McConnell got (some) religion. He blasted the insurrection and bluntly blamed Trump for inciting it. According to some reports, he even welcomed the second Trump impeachment. (However, he later supported an unsuccessful Senate vote to dismiss it as unconstitutional.) McConnell is a canny operator, and this makes some political sense: Senators, because they run statewide, are somewhat less susceptible to primary challenges and more dependent on winning a broad spectrum of voters.
McCarthy had no similar epiphany. Initially, he said Trump was responsible for the violence. Then, under political fire from the president’s supporters, he backtracked and made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to atone last week, presumably clad in his finest sackcloth suit. Then he returned to Washington, where he promptly faced the Greene situation—which is just another symptom of the same disease.
There isn’t an obvious path out of the morass for the Republican Party. Democrats have a very narrow majority in the House, and the president’s party usually loses seats in midterm elections (though Republicans have endured comparatively low turnout in non-presidential elections in the Trump era, a pattern which may or may not continue). But even if the GOP can win House seats in a midterm, the failure to reckon with the unpopular views of people like Marjorie Taylor Greene—indeed, the failure to even clearly reject them—will make it hard for Republicans, already a minority party, to win nationally or prevail in Senate races. McCarthy would presumably like to be speaker of a Republican-led House, but if his experience as putative leader of the caucus is any sign, would anyone be listening?