There are two non-mutually-exclusive ways of looking at Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-Fla.) war on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
One, posited by CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview on “State of the Union” on Sunday, is that Gaetz is seeking attention. Gaetz’s arguments against an agreement that would avoid a shutdown of the federal government, Tapper suggested, was “the language of somebody who is looking for clicks and likes and Fox [News] hits, not somebody who actually is trying to reduce the debt.”
“You might want to check Fox,” Gaetz replied. “I haven’t been hitting there as much recently.” For the record, September was his second-most prominent month on the network this year, following only January, when he led the charge against voting in McCarthy as speaker.
Of course, it doesn’t take Fox News to be a player in the right-wing influence universe. The magic of social media means that tailoring and speaking to an audience of hundreds of thousands can be as effective as a few segments on shows watched by millions.
But that also means having a pitch that resonates with those hundreds of thousands of people. And that’s the other way of looking at Gaetz’s rebelliousness: From the comfortable position of the guy who doesn’t have to get things done, he can more effectively embrace the hard-line politics many Republicans endorse.
There was a hint of this in the Tapper interview. The CNN host asked whether Gaetz would push for McCarthy’s removal; Gaetz said he would. And then he made a prediction.
“The only way Kevin McCarthy is speaker of the House at the end of this coming week is if Democrats bail him out,” Gaetz said. “ … I actually think that, when you believe in nothing, as Kevin McCarthy does, everything’s negotiable. And I think he will cut a deal with the Democrats.”
The framing there is interesting, pitting compromise — working with the opposition, negotiating — against core values.
When Gaetz got up to speak from the House floor on Monday, he returned to this dichotomy, criticizing the speaker for supporting additional funding for Ukraine.
“To extend Joe Biden’s spending and Joe Biden’s policy priorities, the speaker of the House gave away to Joe Biden the money for Ukraine that Joe Biden wanted,” Gaetz said. “It is going to be difficult for my Republican friends to keep calling President Biden feeble while he continues to take Speaker McCarthy’s lunch money in every negotiation.”
He pointed to a vote taken last week in which Ukraine funding passed, though most Republicans voted against it. This violates what’s called the “Hastert Rule,” after disgraced former speaker Dennis Hastert. Under that informal rule, no vote would be held by a Republican majority unless a majority of the Republican caucus supported it.
“According to the Hastert Rule, which Speaker McCarthy agreed to in January, you cannot use Democrats to roll a majority of the majority,” Gaetz emphasized, “certainly on something as consequential as Ukraine.”
The argument is the same across the board here: McCarthy worked with Democrats to finalize spending legislation, instead of standing with his caucus.
His party’s base would largely agree. In February, Monmouth University asked Americans to identify the bigger contributor to problems in politics, too little compromise or too little principled action by elected officials. Overall, a slight majority of respondents said too little compromise. Republicans, though, picked the too-little-standing-on-principle option by a 22-point margin.
A similar question offered in the Grinnell College poll in March asked Americans to identify what they wanted to see from a presidential candidate. Compromise and “fighting for their party’s priorities” were about even nationally and among those who usually vote for Democrats (including both members of the party and independents who lean toward the Democrats).
Among Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents), 6 in 10 said they preferred a presidential candidate who would fight for their party’s priorities.
Yes, it is definitely the case that Gaetz enjoys ginning up attention. But his opposition to McCarthy also captures a fundamental challenge for any Republican leader: the base doesn’t want to compromise but political realities demand it. McCarthy has a nine-seat majority, which constrains his power. Particularly since that narrow margin gives people like Gaetz a chance to apply pressure. And applying that pressure draws media attention and, in this case, appeals to the whims of a majority of the Republican base.
What’s the solution for McCarthy? It’s no more clear for him than it was for former speakers John A. Boehner or Paul D. Ryan, both of whom stepped away from their leadership positions rather than struggle with the divide Gaetz is exploiting.