When Would Things Be So Bad That Democrats Should Enable Republicans' Irresponsibility?
As of this moment (early Thursday afternoon), House Republicans have not yet chosen a new Speaker to replace the hapless Kevin McCarthy, who was "vacated" last week by the hardest of hard-right MAGA loyalists. Or was it the Democrats' fault? I will discuss that debate below, but no matter how one views what happened last week, it remains true that Democrats could indeed join with Republicans to make some other Republican (or even McCarthy himself) the next Speaker. If the Democrats choose not to do so, and if terrible things then happen in a way that seems plausibly tied to the lack of a functioning House of Representatives, will the resulting damage be the Democrats' fault? And no matter who could be blamed, when should Democrats help pull Republicans out of the hole that they created?
Put differently, we are once again in a situation where Democrats could cave to unreasonable demands (many of those demands being indecipherable and others contradictory, but never mind). Democrats always have that option. When should they exercise it, if ever? What kind of situation is so bad that it would require Democrats to give a bunch of nihilistic nutcases the keys to the store?
In Rob Reiner's 1985 romantic college road comedy "The Sure Thing" -- which does not hold up well to current sensibilities, to say the least -- the two will-they-won't-they protagonists are stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no money and in a driving rainstorm. Suddenly, one character remembers: "I have a credit card!" She immediately looks forlorn, however, and says, "Oh, my dad told me specifically I can only use it in case of an emergency." The other character stops trying to break the lock to a shed that they are trying to enter to get out of the storm and says: "Well, maybe one will come up."
So, are any of the emergencies that have come up to challenge the US and the world bad enough that it is time to use the credit card? And if so, what if there is more than one credit card that could be used? Who should do something that they would prefer not to do? More to the point, when does it make sense to give in to craziness?
As an initial matter, consider the response from McCarthy and others last week after he was ousted. They immediately pointed out that the Democrats could have "saved" McCarthy but did not do so, whereas all but eight House Republicans voted to keep him in the job. It is the Democrats' fault, right? Non-Republicans rightly mocked this idea, saying that it is not Democrats' job to stop Republicans from soiling themselves.
For example, on Stephen Colbert's show two nights ago (again: thank the heavens for the successful conclusion of the writers' strike), first-term House Democrat Maxwell Frost of Florida discussed the McCarthy ouster with Colbert. Capturing the absurdity of the question he was posing, Colbert asked: "Why didn't you Democrats save Kevin McCarthy? Because, you know, you're young and may not understand that everything the Republicans do to each other is the responsibility of the Democrats to fix. Has that been explained to you by the press?"
Nicely done, but what was Frost's response to Colbert's soft lob? "Two things. Number One, the Republicans need a lot more than me to fix what they have going on. And Number Two ... we've been fighting to save food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid this entire year, as Republicans have been working to take it away. ... And so, you know, I'm just letting them pull themselves up by their bootstraps. ... I don't want to give them any of that socialism, you know what I mean?" Colbert responded: "Exactly, they gotta do it for themselves."
Returning to the topic later in the interview, Frost said: "When I get asked, 'Where were Democrats on this whole issue?' I like to tell people, 'He created this issue himself to get into power, and when you have a Speaker of the House who's working day to day to keep his job, and not for the American people, this is what happens.' So it's really unfortunate."
Frost, the youngest member of Congress at age 26, is impressive. He is passionate and well spoken, and I am glad that there are still parts of Florida that would elect someone like him. His answers to this question, however, were at best evasive and at worst incoherent. None of his three points responds to the question of why Democrats did not think that having a non-functioning House was worth avoiding, even at the cost of enabling the worst excesses of the Republican caucus. There is a good answer, as I will explain below, but Frost did not provide it.
Late last week, former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough got into one of his stubborn, repetitive rants during an interview on his morning talk show with Democratic House member Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. Gottheimer, a center-right Democrat who fancies himself a virtuously bipartisan moderate, is a member of the infuriating "Problem Solvers Caucus," a group of Republicans and Democrats in the House who claim to represent the elusive (and mythical) sensible center. Scarborough pushed Gottheimer on the question of why he and his fellow Problem Solvers did not defy the rest of the Democratic caucus and save McCarthy. Gottheimer went through the by-then-standard litany of reasons, one of which was that the choice of Speakers is a "family matter" for Republicans. Scarborough responded by pointing out that Gottheimer likes to talk about bipartisanship, but at the crucial moment when when they could have solved a real problem by crossing the aisle, suddenly they went AWOL. Scarborough then sneered while saying that the Democratic Problem Solvers are just as stuck in partisan thinking as everyone else.
I found Scarborough's line of attack infuriating, but not because he was wrong about Gottheimer. Again, any five Democrats could have voted to keep McCarthy as speaker. Yet it is especially relevant that this was a moment when Gottheimer et al.'s neo-triangulating nonsense was put to the test, and their answer was that they were still Democrats. I am glad about that, but that is not a good enough answer to Scarborough's (and Colbert's) question.
What is a good enough answer? Quite simply that keeping McCarthy was not going to solve any problems! McCarthy was incapable of keeping his word, incapable of running the House, and showed every sign of not being able to deliver when the next shutdown deadline arises a month from now. He did not offer Democrats anything in exchange for their support, insulting them even after all but one of them voted for McCarthy's continuing resolution, and he thus made it clear that he was going to continue the same dysfunctional spiral that had begun when he became Speaker nine months ago. Kevin McCarthy was not the solution to the Kevin McCarthy problem.
But we must still return to the question that I posed at the beginning of this column: When would things be so bad that Democrats should be willing to cave to any and every unreasonable demand from the Republicans? What if Democrats do see a solution to the larger problem that involves supporting some other Republican for Speaker? Even if the Republicans are responsible for making an emergency purchase necessary and could solve the problem on their own if only they could get their act together, at some point Democrats need to look at reality and say, "Fine, here's our dad's credit card!"
I am not saying that now is that time. This basic dilemma has come up often in the last decade or so, with Republicans contriving situations in which Democrats are being told to be the adults in the room. Given how much time Professor Dorf and I have spent writing about the debt ceiling, that example is obviously at the front of my mind. Every time that Republicans threatened to trigger a constitutional crisis by demanding cruel social spending cuts as the price of increasing the debt ceiling, the Democrats could have given up the ghost. It was disingenuous for Republicans to say, "You know, it's the Democrats' fault, because they're not giving into our demands"; but while it was disingenuous, it was also true that Democrats could have solved the immediate problem.
Similarly, the most recent government near-shutdown presented Democrats with the possibility of saying, "Well, you're being crazy, but I'm afraid that you might in fact go through with this, so I guess we'll capitulate to save the country from a bad outcome." In both situations, I was glad to see Democrats refuse to go down that path, because (a) in the case of the debt ceiling, the Buchanan-Dorf least unconstitutional option was available as the least-bad method of neutralizing the constitutional threat once and for all, and (b) in the case of a shutdown, the harm -- though unfortunate, and even though it would have been borne by innocent people -- seemed worth it in a larger sense, because the Republicans rightly would have paid a political price.
In the current situation, what if Democrats were to come up with a plan to install a Republican speaker who would agree not to do anything other than keep the lights on until the next election? The worry is that they would thus allow Republicans to say that they have figured out a way to govern, giving Democrats a weaker argument in Fall 2024 as to why the voters need to put Democrats back in charge.
The stakes here are enormous. Taking into account the fact that the lack of a Speaker worsens life-and-death dangers in both Ukraine and Israel, the argument becomes even stronger that Democrats can no longer treat this as a matter of "winning the politics." Even there, however, one could easily predict a future in which the Democrats' "responsible" choice in late 2023 results in Republicans being in charge of the entire federal govenrment again in January 2025, at which point Ukraine would almost certainly be doomed, and a new Trump policy team would be in charge of Middle Eastern policy. What could go wrong?
Moreover, the US might be able to help Israel and Ukraine without a functioning House of Representatives, at least for a few weeks or even months. Between executive orders and other workarounds, it is quite possible that we simply do not need a working House at this very moment.
That is not to say that there is never a time when the usual political concerns have to be set aside, even when the other party is insane or corrupt (or both). It is to say that there are always downstream effects of enabling Republicans' worst impulses. And bad impulses are pretty much the only kind of impulses that Republicans have at this point.