“Boo all you want,” said Representative Matt Gaetz during a particularly inflamed moment on the House floor during his coup d’etat against Kevin McCarthy, now the former speaker of the House. Garret Graves, the Louisiana Republican and McCarthy consigliere, had just said the Florida Republican “was using official actions to raise money. It’s disgusting.” The boos continued, and within a couple of hours, McCarthy had been sacked, and it was anyone’s guess as to who might replace him or want to be the next object of scorn for the Batshit Caucus.
The defenestration of McCarthy is a reminder that as much as the public wants politicians who will shake things up, they also want order and continuity.
For a long time, the Democrats were easily lampooned as the party of disorder. No fewer than three Democratic conventions cemented that image.
The infamous 1968 convention in Chicago was marked by violence in the streets and even inside the hall as a fractured party nominated Hubert Humphrey, who made it a close race, but Mayor Richard Daley’s baton-happy police and the Yippies and hippies in Grant Park didn’t help. The 1972 Democratic convention that crowned George McGovern was less chaotic but still unsettling. Due to the disorganization and floor fights staving off an Anybody But McGovern insurgency, the nominee didn’t make his prime-time address from Miami Beach until 3:00 AM. In 1980, Ted Kennedy’s middle-finger address to Democrats gathered in New York’s Madison Square Garden helped doom Jimmy Carter.
Today, Republicans are the chaos party, as if we needed reminding eight years after Donald Trump went down the escalator. You can blame the circular firing squad on Gaetz or the Freedom Caucus, but they’re all Newt Gingrich’s kids.
Almost 30 years ago, Gingrich was elected House speaker after a career in which he savaged the leadership of his party, harnessing the then-new technology called C-SPAN. Using nighttime harangues in an empty House chamber, he built a nationwide network of supporters that took him from Georgia gadfly to wrecking ball to second in line for the presidency.
By the late 1990s, the House Republican Conference was filled with little Newts. Gingrich staved off attacks from the right, but he was doomed when his affair with a staffer came out shortly following the Bill Clinton impeachment ordeal. His all-but-certain successor, Representative Bob Livingston, didn’t reach the speaker’s chair when his affair came to light. A relative calm followed as the GOP took the White House for eight years, and a new speaker became the longest-serving Republican speaker ever. His name was Denny Hastert, and before he was an Illinois politician, he was a predatory high school wrestling coach. Later, he would do time for banking fraud to pay off his victims.
By the time Obama had lost the House in 2010, and the GOP was back in the majority, Gingrich-style revanchists threatened to take out Speaker John Boehner. The merlot-and-Marlboro man quit before he faced a humiliation like McCarthy’s. Likewise, Paul Ryan got out before the torch-and-pitchfork crowd came for him. Yesterday’s ouster of McCarthy was the logical, inevitable culmination of the cannibalistic culture that Gingrich wrought.
Newt was smart, though, and successful. His 1994 “Contract with America” brought the GOP to power in the House after 40 years in the wilderness, a Biblical exile in which countless Republican congressmen came and went without being more than potted plants on the Marine and Fisheries Subcommittee. Newt could be both Robespierre and the Bourbon restoration, revolution and Thermidor because he delivered the goods with the help of strong lieutenants.
Gaetz has the power to destroy but not to build. The next speaker will likely be someone to the right of McCarthy but not an ally of Gaetz, let alone the pompadour-crowned firebrand himself. One observer joked to me that Gaetz is more likely to be found dead in a parking garage than be the next speaker. (Even Gingrich called for expelling him.)
The conventional wisdom is that the next speaker will be doomed because Gaetz and his band of trolls can’t be satisfied. In one sense, that’s true. Despite insisting that he was on a crusade for “regular order,” a return to the days when bills moved along a reassuring Schoolhouse Rock path to passage, Gaetz is not the Roberts Rules of Order champion he pretended to be. He’s a political arsonist.
No policy will keep Gaetz happy. But it’s unlikely the party will want to go through this again. It’s not helping their chances of retaining control of the chamber next year, and there’s a certain frisson bringing down one speaker that can’t be matched by bringing down a second.
So, I imagine by the end of the year when Majority Leader Steve Scalise or some other fellow takes the helm, they’ll last through this Congress. (Although this seems like a good moment to remind that the speaker need not be a member of the House, and Trump could use a job.) To appease the far right flank, the new speaker will likely have to greenlight a Joe Biden impeachment vote (not just a mere probe), bless a Hunter Biden subpoena, strut during a spending showdown, and preside over an effort to end aid to Ukraine. Those events won’t be as jaw-dropping as yesterday’s self-immolation, but they’ll be a reminder that one party is chaos and one isn’t.
Nancy Pelosi’s deserved acclaim for keeping her party in line is worth remembering. None of the short-lived efforts to oust her a la Harold Ford or Seth Moulton made it to the Beer Hall Putsch stage. She had total control.
Republicans used to pillory Pelosi as an effete San Francisco liberal. Now, many Republicans pine for a Pelosi of their own, someone who knows how to wield power, make tough calls, and keep a caucus unified.
Without adult supervision, Newt’s ideological spawn burned down the House. Until January 2025, the chamber will resemble a FEMA disaster site. Boo all you want.