The Democrats go full ‘MAGA’

The Briefing, Vol. XI, Issue 40

This week:

  • McCarthy’s shocking, game-changing ouster
  • Democrats unceremoniously dump the Iowa caucuses
  • Trump’s lead in Pa. highlights Biden’s weakness


Speaker 2023

Kevin McCarthy Ouster: The popular storyline is that House conservatives brought about the completely unforeseen and shocking ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last week. But that isn’t really true. The truth is that Democrats got rid of him. After all, 208 of the 216 votes to vacate his chair were Democratic votes.

The merits of McCarthy’s removal are debatable, but this fact isn’t: Every single House Democrat voted in lockstep to remove McCarthy because they all saw a political opportunity to create chaos that they now hope to blame on the majority during next year’s election. Their talking points in the last few days reflect a two-faced approach to governing that puts party power over all other considerations.

The most concise summation of their actions is that of former Rep. and Freedom Caucus founding member Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who served in various roles in Donald Trump’s administration before the two men had a falling-out: House Democrats’ actions evince a total lack of interest in bipartisanship or serious governance. 

For the last several years, both President Joe Biden (D) and congressional Democrats have wailed about the harmful influence of so-called “MAGA Republicans.” Yet for all of their feigned concern about this element of the Republican Party, they proved perfectly willing last week to vote all-the-way MAGA on the House floor. They did this in spite of the potential resulting “chaos” that they now pretend to abhor, including potentially a looming struggle over a government shutdown into which a leaderless House majority now staggers. 

Most tellingly, Democrats helped MAGA win on the House floor and oust McCarthy — really, Democrats did all of the heavy lifting — precisely because McCarthy had committed the sin of working with them, the Democrats. McCarthy’s most cited crimes in the mind of Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), whose motion to vacate the chair led to his removal, had been his willingness to seek Democratic support on the debt-ceiling and the recent bills to raise the debt limit and to avoid a government shutdown.

Given that, will the next Republican Speaker feel any temptation at all to work with Democrats?

McCarthy’s downfall: Setting aside the duplicity of Democrats, was McCarthy’s ouster a good thing? Again, that’s a debatable question. One thing he managed to do well was to prevent internal drama in the Republican Party from spilling over into the business of governing — right up until he didn’t, of course. On the other hand, as Gaetz complained, he quite clearly failed to make good on his promise to return the House to regular order for the first time in decades. He did little or nothing to push the appropriations subcommittees to produce their respective spending bills, which put the House on a collision course for yet another continuing resolution that left the government spending at artificially high levels due to the massive increases last year due to COVID. This was one of conservatives’ main asks when McCarthy was elected Speaker, as it has been one of their main complaints about the dysfunctional budgeting system that Congress has employed (and mostly failed to live up to) for the last 49 fiscal years under the Congressional Budget Act.

Speaker race: McCarthy has made clear that he does not want the job back and will not be running to reclaim it. Already committed to the race are House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who over the weekend gained the endorsement of former President Donald Trump (R). (Some members at one point were promoting Trump as a possible Speaker himself, since the Speaker does not necessarily have to be a member of Congress.) Trump has even threatened to show up on the Hill for the vote. 

Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, briefly put himself forward as a consensus candidate or possibly try to serve as a kingmaker in a second round vote. The top two have locked up so many endorsements that it seemed unrealistic for a third person to win, although stranger things have happened, as when the apparently inoffensive second-choice candidate Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) came out of nowhere to become Speaker at the end of the 1990s.

Although for a brief time it appeared that Fox News was going to host a forum for Speaker candidates, those plans were scrapped after all of the potential candidates withdrew.

President 2024

Iowa: Ever since 1976, when an obscure Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter (D) was propelled from his victory in Iowa to the U.S. presidency, it has been a tradition for politicians in both parties to flock to the frozen Midwest and engage in the sort of person-to-person retail politics that made Iowa into the show it was.

The Democratic process was particularly interesting, and this was part of its downfall. Rather than simply counting up caucusgoers, the Democrats weighted each caucus venue, awarding  delegates based on the local population. This meant that massive turnout in one place could not lead to victory, but it also caused a massive mathematical foul-up in the 2020 contest, which to this day generates confusion over whether Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg won. 

On Friday, Democrats finally and unceremoniously dumped the contest that made Iowa politically important. On the Democratic side, Iowa will now become one unimportant contest among many to be held on Super Tuesday. Although Iowa Democrats say they will lobby for an earlier contest in 2028, there is no reason to believe them, or to believe that the Democratic National Committee will accede to any such demands.

The debacle of 2020 actually just provided the excuse Democrats needed to scrap a contest they didn’t really want anymore. Although Democrats would have people believe that Iowa is too white for them, the reality is that it is too Red, and the whites in their party are too extreme.

It sounds sensible that a party that loses the white vote by nearly 20 points in every presidential election would want to give black voters (most South Carolina Democrats are black) a larger role in the process. But Iowa maintained its privileged role for years because it was such an important swing state — right up until 2016, when Trump carried it by a shocking nine points over Hillary Clinton. 

Especially if there is no further hope of carrying Iowa, then Democrats would just as soon skip the drama that gives so much attention to their socialist-adjacent candidates, who generate unwelcome publicity for their brand. 

Don’t forget that in 2020, the party’s moderate but more reliable black voting base made Joe Biden the nominee in South Carolina, rescuing the party from what had seemed a very likely Bernie Sanders nomination. 

The DNC would just as soon get the whole thing over with sooner in the future, only without the potentially bad publicity.

In the meantime, Republicans will continue to hold their first-in-the-nation caucus in the Hawkeye State. Democrats in New Hampshire, unlike in Iowa, are resisting the DNC’s attempts to render their state primary meaningless.

Pennsylvania: Quinnipiac’s latest poll shows Trump leading Biden in Pennsylvania, 47 to 45 percent. This might be dismissed as an outlier, if not for the fact that Trump did carry the Keystone State in 2016, and nearly did so again in 2020. Biden’s approval rating in the crucial state is an appalling 41 percent with 55 percent disapproval, and his favorable/unfavorable is even worse at 39 percent/57 percent. 

In fact, Biden’s favorables in this poll are slightly worse than Trump’s (40 percent/56 percent), which is unusual and noteworthy, especially given that Trump is currently battling four separate criminal indictments and a high-profile civil fraud lawsuit.

It also cannot be lost on Team Biden that Trump tends to do better than polls indicate, simply because popular media and culture are so stridently anti-Trump. Respondents are more hesitant to subject themselves to the social stigma that comes with being a Trump supporter.

This poll is probably not just slanted against Democrats, as Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) enjoys a robust job approval at 51 percent to 27 percent.

Another interesting takeaway from this survey: Sen. John Fetterman (D), who is not up for re-election until 2028 but has suffered from high-profile controversies over his medical fitness to serve, has upside-down job approval (41 percent approve and 48 percent disapprove) and favorability (39 percent/46 percent) ratings.

Senate 2024

New Jersey: Sen. Bob Menendez (D), who keeps nearly $500,000 in cash in his home in case there’s ever an emergency, now has a trial date. His bribery trial will begin May 6, 2024. This could make for some interesting timing, as the state’s party primary will be held on June 4. Rep. Andy Kim (D) is challenging him. This means that until next spring, Menendez can continue to hold his Senate seat and represent New Jersey. It also means that a last-minute verdict could shape his chances at re-election, for good or for ill, although pre-trial motions could delay the process still further.

A wrinkle in the case is that new attention is now being paid to a 2018  incident involving the senator’s wife. Nadine Menendez, now indicted alongside her husband, may have received favorable treatment after she hit and killed a pedestrian while driving. Not only was the incident allegedly papered over, but she was also allegedly given an expensive new car as a gift by someone allegedly seeking a favor from the senator.

As always, the word “allegedly” means the jury isn’t in, but it’s never a good word to see in a sentence alongside your name when you’re facing re-election.