The GOP’s internal strife is deepening this week, despite the narrow avoidance of a government shutdown over the weekend.
An effort by hard-line Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to depose Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is expected to dominate the week on Capitol Hill.
But experts across the political spectrum question whether the ructions will have any long-lasting effect on the Republican brand or damage the party’s chances of retaking the White House next year.
To be sure, virtually no one thinks the infighting is good for the GOP. But insiders note three bigger points.
First, the Republican Party has been riven by factionalism for more than a decade, since the Tea Party rose to prominence — which makes the drama of the Gaetz vs. McCarthy battle just one more episode in a familiar story.
Second, there is considerable evidence that persuadable voters see the recent turmoil, especially the threats of a shutdown, as evidence of the dysfunction of Congress and politics writ large, rather than the GOP, specifically.
Third, when it comes to next year’s battle for the White House, former President Trump is widely expected — by fans and detractors alike — to be the Republican nominee. If that happens, his enormously divisive personality will be much more of a defining issue than anything McCarthy, Gaetz or their allies could say or do.
“Most voters don’t really pay attention to the Machiavellian ins-and-outs of this stuff,” GOP strategist Dan Judy told this column. “But what voters do see is continued utter dysfunction in Washington. That is what hurts the Republican brand more than the details of any specific situation.”
Judy cautioned that any political advantage for Democrats was likely to be slight, even as he expressed dismay at the recent goings-on.
“Republicans do tend to take more blame historically for shutdowns,” he said. “But this sort of brinkmanship has become so common that I think the idea of blame is sort of irrelevant in the minds of most voters. So, do Republicans take more blame? Probably. But it dirties everybody up so much.”
Recent polling provides evidence to buttress this argument.
An Economist/YouGov poll released last week, for example, showed blame being spread widely for a shutdown that then looked likely.
Had such a thing happened, the poll indicated that 29 percent of adults would have mostly blamed Republicans in Congress. But that figure is almost identical to the combined 27 percent who would have primarily blamed either Democrats in Congress (14 percent) or President Biden (13 percent). In addition, 32 percent said they would put the blame on “everyone equally.”
The same poll also shows both parties being broadly disliked — and at comparable levels.
Fifty-four percent of adults had an unfavorable view of the GOP, while 52 percent saw the Democrats unfavorably. As for positive views, those numbers were 38 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
Independent experts emphasize that the GOP’s internal struggles have been going on for so long that they are likely already factored into voters’ perceptions. McCarthy’s challenges in trying to corral his conference have been a running political theme this year.
“This kind of division is one we’ve seen for a very long time and so there is nothing new here. This was evident when McCarthy got the position in the first place — on the 15th vote — and that got a lot of attention,” said Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
Even further back, Reeher added, “the far right has been a thorn in the side of Republican Speakers for a very long time. Just ask John Boehner. I don’t think it is going to register with people as new.”
John Boehner (R-Ohio) resigned as Speaker in 2015 after numerous battles with recalcitrant conservative colleagues.
There is, of course, a completely different view, articulated by Gaetz himself. In short, the argument is that disruption is necessary for a Congress that is too cozy with the status quo and a GOP leadership that is more accommodationist than its voters want.
Speaking to reporters Monday on Capitol Hill, Gaetz took issue with a question that he felt wrongly blamed him for inciting chaos.
“You talk about chaos as if it’s me forcing a few votes and filing a few motions,” Gaetz said. “Real chaos is when the American people have to go through the austerity that is coming if we continue to have $2 trillion annual deficits. You don’t know chaos until you’ve seen where this Congress and this uniparty is bringing us.”
Gaetz can certainly claim to be a disruptor, though whether his efforts have a substantive point or are simply aimed at boosting his profile is hotly contested.
Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) told ABC’s “This Week” Sunday that Gaetz’s rationalizations about the need to remove McCarthy amounted to “a diatribe of delusional thinking.”
Lucy Caldwell, a political strategist and Trump critic who describes herself as an ex-Republican, said of Gaetz: “He and his contingent of folks are not, from my vantage point, serious about governing. If they ever were to succeed in driving out McCarthy as Speaker, they would be the dog that caught the car. They would have no idea what to do next.”
But even Caldwell didn’t see the current volatility as likely to have big effects in the longer term, or even as far as next year.
“I’m not ready to say this episode was horribly damaging,” she said. “I don’t think so, if next year it’s a two-way race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.