The Centrist Fantasy
Can moderate Republicans take back their party?
Political scientist turned columnist Jonathan Bernstein pines for the return of normal politics, arguing “Joe Manchin Charted a Better Course for [the] House GOP.”
There are roughly two dozen House Republicans who, based on the midterm results or their districts’ makeup, are likely to face difficult re-election battles in 2024. While these Republicans typically get far less attention than the party’s anti-democratic extremists — those who praise autocrats like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and spread former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election — they potentially have far more leverage.
That’s because moderate Republicans could undermine the GOP’s slim House majority by reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats. Extremists, for all their bluster, have no such option.
The problem with that, of course, is that doing so puts them in a political No Man’s Land. It would mean that they’d be heavily targeted in the Republican primaries—in which Democrats would invest heavily to boost extremist candidates—with no backing from party leadership. And, if they somehow survived that, would be even more vulnerable in the general election.
The narrow GOP majority means moderate Republicans could exercise their influence to press for centrist priorities that could help them with voters in 2024. But their leverage will only be helpful if they choose to take advantage of it. In recent years, the majority of House Republicans, fearful of being labeled Republican in Name Only, have allowed the party’s extremist fringe represented by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan to intimidate them.
That’s increasingly looking like a risky electoral strategy. As we learned in the midterms, voters in closely divided districts tended to reject the anti-democratic inclinations of candidates backed by former President Trump. In a tightly divided legislative chamber, any small group from the majority party can cause disruption by threatening “no” votes on legislation. But only the relatively moderate group can offer — or threaten — constructive alternatives that involve finding common cause with some Democrats.
Again, I don’t see how this works. It would instantly alienate them from their party with little payoff.
Joe Manchin was in a very different position: he was often the deciding vote on legislation backed by the majority party in the House and Senate with a same-party President eager to sign. This didn’t require working with the opposition party; it simply meant drawing a line and saying “This far and no farther” or “I’ll vote for it under conditions X, Y, and Z.” And Manchin is pretty much the only Democrat who could plausibly get elected to the Senate from West Virginia; there’s really not much the party can do to punish him.
There’s no analog here for moderate Republicans in a bare majority House with a majority Democratic Senate and Democratic President.
With control of Congress divided between the two parties, bipartisan deal-making is also the only way that Republicans will actually accomplish anything in the next Congress.
On that, we agree. But, honestly, to the extent that Republicans actually want to accomplish anything in the next Congress, it needs to be orchestrated by the party leadership. Kevin McCarthy, or whoever winds up as Speaker, is the one who’s in the Joe Manchin position, as President Biden can’t realistically get anything through Congress without bipartisan cooperation.
Bernstein’s concrete proposal is this:
A major indication of which direction the Republicans will choose will come on Jan. 3, when the House votes to elect the next speaker. Most leaders of House and Senate parties are chosen by internal party votes; Mitch McConnell, for example, has already been elected minority leader for the next Congress because he won a vote of Senate Republicans.
But thanks to a constitutional quirk, parties only nominate candidates for House speaker, with the winner chosen in a vote by the entire House, Republicans and Democrats. That’s usually a formality; until recently, party loyalty required every member of the majority party to support the party’s nominee, ensuring his or her victory. But party loyalty on the speakership vote has eroded in the last two decades, with handfuls of dissenters willing to vote “present” or for someone else.
The prospective speaker needs to win a majority of the whole House to be elected. If Republicans wind up controlling the House by a 222-to-213 margin, five Republicans voting for someone other than Republican leader Kevin McCarthy for speaker would mean that no candidate would have the 218 votes needed for a majority.
The GOP’s anti-democracy faction has been using that math to pressure McCarthy for concessions, threatening to sink his chances unless he gives them everything they want. They apparently believe that they are in the driver’s seat; indeed, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie, a Tea Party supporter perhaps best known for delaying a vote on the original bipartisan pandemic relief bill in March 2020, has publicly expressed his wish for a smaller Republican majority on the idea that it would give him more sway.
That’s a logic that Republican extremists have relied on for years, but its effectiveness depends on the rest of the party’s willingness to go along.
But what if instead of allowing a tiny group of fringe figures to call the shots the party was compelled to heed the influence of Republicans in vulnerable seats and of others who resist being defined by Matt Gaetzes of the world? This faction, which could include some of the newly elected Republicans from New York State, could decide to take a page from Senator Joe Manchin and other relatively moderate Democrats, either by crossing party lines in key votes or by seeking to build a center-against-the-extremes bipartisan coalition.
Again, that’s not what Manchin did. And what, exactly, are the New York moderates going to do? Vote for a Democrat as Speaker? Run one of their own and get Democrats to cross over and vote for them?
On the Democratic side, Manchin had one big advantage that House Republicans in Democratic districts lack: The most ideologically extreme Democrats such as Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House are basically pragmatic politicians who want to get things done and are willing to cut deals to achieve what’s possible. The House Republican fringe is more concerned with elevating their media profile than with passing legislation.
I don’t know that that’s true of AOC in particular but, yes, that’s basically right. AOC at least has a policy agenda she’s trying to promote; I have no idea what MGT is trying to accomplish.
But that’s all the more reason for anyone who doesn’t want to be defined by the fringe to stand up to it at the outset of the new Congress. Make clear to McCarthy and any other speaker candidates what they want and show that they’re willing to walk away — even to work with Democrats — if they don’t get it.
Ask Peter Meijer how that worked out for him. It’s basically political suicide.
Two weeks after the midterms, we’re seeing the first stirrings of resistance from some of these Republicans. But vague notions of wanting to appear less partisan won’t cut it. If they are to make use of the clout they can have, these Republicans will have to quickly figure out what to ask for and then fight for it, and to be prepared for the ferocious pushback they will face from conservative media outlets and, for that matter, from former President Trump.
But if they aren’t willing to do it, they might as well make Marjorie Taylor Greene the speaker of the House right now and accept that they prefer to be bullied into irrelevance.
Or, how about this: they actually follow the Manchin model and refuse to go along with extremist bills that would be unpopular with their constituents? Again, the analogy isn’t exactly right because Manchin’s party had nominal control of all three parts of the policymaking apparatus. But the moderates can absolutely demand that McCarthy and company go along with popular proposals and insist that they be allowed to vote for them. But they have to do it via the Republican Caucus rather than in coalition with Democrats if they hope to serve another term as Republican Congressmen.