Triumph of congressional terrorists

by Steven Roberts

“Hostage takers.” That’s how Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska described his fellow Republicans who repeatedly blocked Rep. Kevin McCarthy from becoming speaker. Rep. Kat Cammack of Florida, another Republican, denounced the dissidents as “the radical 2%” of the party.

But that’s hardly surprising. Former Republican Speaker John Boehner, in a book released two years ago, called that same splenetic splinter “terrorists” and urged his party to “take back control from the faction that had grown to include everyone from garden-variety whack jobs to insurrectionists.”

The opposite has happened. Since House Republicans have only a 4-vote margin, the hostage takers, the 2%, have taken power. Whoever becomes speaker — and at this writing, the outcome is uncertain — two things are clear.

Disunity and dysfunction have already damaged the GOP’s reputation. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, accused the hardliners of following a “suicidal path” and predicted: “It will get Biden reelected in 2024. That’s how stupid their strategy is.”

Moreover, the next speaker will face enormous difficulty in managing even the most basic tasks of government. The terrorists have tasted blood. Their resistance to McCarthy is only the first of many battles to come.

Here’s what the hardliners are not: legislators. Lawmaking requires compromise, and compromise is absolutely the last thing they’re interested in. It also requires respect for the institution they serve, and they have little.

That’s why so many of them joined Donald Trump in supporting the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and then voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory. As Boehner aptly put it: “The legislative terrorism that I’d witnessed as speaker had now encouraged actual terrorism.”

Instead of being legislators, these terrorists are primarily performers. Their goal is making speeches, not laws. They count followers on Twitter, not votes in Congress. They see the Capitol as a media platform, not a meeting place.

“There are far more members here who are engaged in performance art and performance art only now, and they really have no interest in governing,” John Yarmuth, a retiring Kentucky Democrat, told The New York Times.

In fact, one of the prime complaints lodged against McCarthy is that he’s been too willing to work with Democrats, too committed to doing the job he was actually elected to do – run the country. As Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, one of McCarthy’s leading critics, sneered on Fox, “He’s part of the swamp cartel.”

Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP strategist, said of McCarthy in The Washington Post: “His greatest skill is his ability to negotiate, and some have used that skill against him, saying that there should be no negotiation. But that’s not how you get things passed. That’s how you lose. If you refuse to negotiate, that’s how you lose.”

There’s nothing new about this dynamic in GOP ranks. For the last 25 years, the hostage takers have bedeviled a series of party leaders. In 1994, Newt Gingrich became the first Republican speaker in 40 years, but only four years later, he denounced a cadre of hardliners as the “perfectionist caucus” after they opposed a key spending bill.

“In a free society,” he pleaded unsuccessfully, “you have to have give-and-take.” After the GOP suffered serious setbacks in the 1998 election, Gingrich resigned and blamed the perfectionists: “The ones you see on TV are hateful. I am willing to lead, but I won’t allow cannibalism.”

When Boehner assumed the speakership in 2011, he became the mayor of “Crazytown,” as he wrote: “Crazytown was populated by jackasses, and media hounds, and some normal citizens as baffled as I was about how we got trapped inside the city walls.”

The “media hounds” became even more powerful as new technologies gave them direct access to millions of voters – and contributors. Paul Ryan became speaker in 2015 and watched in dismay as the biggest media hound of all, Donald Trump, expanded and exploited the Crazytown approach to politics that had been incubating in party ranks for decades.

As he quit in frustration after only four years in office, Ryan told Politico: “With identity politics being played all around and 21st-century technology accelerating it, and putting gas on the fire – that is my big concern of politics these days. And that makes it harder to have political goodwill in this country because of all this polarization.”

If anything, that polarization has gotten worse since Ryan said those words. The outsiders who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 failed. But their allies inside the building have more leverage than ever.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.