How Kevin McCarthy’s ousting represents an identity crisis within the Republican Party

US Congress
Daniel Hawker

On October 3, 2023, the US House of Representatives voted to remove Kevin McCarthy, after US Representative of Florida Matt Gaetz filed a motion to vacate the Chair, which marked the first time in American History that a US Speaker was removed from the Speakership by a motion to vacate the chair. This immediately started a procedure for the US House to vote on a speaker, and since the US Republicans held a slim majority in the US House of Representatives, they are to conduct an intra-term election for the new US Speaker. In this article, Daniel Hawker covers the impact of the ousting of Kevin McCarthy on the US political situation, the looming political crisis that comes after the removal of the US Speaker, and the upcoming US House Speaker elections.

In a never-before-seen act of Republican division, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, was abruptly ousted from the chair on October 3. Having just facilitated a bipartisan effort to avoid a government shutdown, McCarthy found himself the target of anti-establishment hardliners within his party, instigated by the pro-Trump Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz. With 216 for and 210 against, the vote saw eight Republicans breaking ranks to oust Mr McCarthy, plunging the House into chaos. Observing the ongoing scramble to elect a new Speaker has revealed just how deep an ideological divide exists within the party and raises the massive question of which road the GOP will go down in the coming years.

Now for a certain element of House Republicans, primarily the pro-Trump House Freedom Caucus, a figure like Kevin McCarthy has come to encapsulate the Washington establishment of careerist politicians, who have spent their careers on committees and enjoying the comfort. As such, the two front runners to replace McCarthy very much represented this intense ideological dichotomy raging within the Republican Party – in which direction is the party headed, back to establishment conservatism, or forward to radical Trumpist authoritarianism? Despite only one remaining, let us consider both of these men and what they would’ve meant for the speakership and the GOP.

Whilst having dropped out of the race, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the current House Majority Leader, has been a familiar face for over a decade. Having occupied numerous leadership positions since 2013 and supported McCarthy, the man is a true establishment Republican with one of ‘the most anti-LGBT reputations of any lawmaker’. We can safely assume a Scalise speakership would’ve continued in the same vein as McCarthy’s, and thus marked no significant cultural shift within the party – simply the reliable neoliberal consensus.

By contrast, the actual nominee, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, is surely aiming to shake up the establishment and drag the party further to the right. The vice chairman of the House Freedom Caucus has been a long-term ally of former president Donald Trump, rejecting the allegations of 2016 Russian interference and opposing his impeachments. Indeed, he has managed to secure Trump’s backing – “he will be a great Speaker of the House … [He] has my complete and total endorsement” – and has launched a pressure campaign against those Republicans opposed to his candidacy. Condemned by the Democrats as an ‘extremist extraordinaire’ and having aided Trump in his attempted 2020 election shenanigans, it remains unclear whether Mr Jordan will be able to unify his party enough to secure the speakership.

Left unable to discuss legislation, this crisis has proved especially damning for the Republicans especially, as they have been unable to approve aid to Israel, as part of their ongoing debacle with Hamas.

Considering how this crisis reflects the Republican Party more broadly, we need only consider the various colourful characters vying to be the 2024 presidential nominee. Whilst all are firmly on the anti-woke bandwagon, there is a clear split between those more radical pro-Trump candidates – people like the businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and Trump’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley – and more traditional Republicans like former Vice President Mike Pence, and indeed vocal Trump critics like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (probably the best out of a bad bunch).

All of this, however, is ignoring that much of the Republican base really wants to see Donald Trump back in the Oval Office – most polls have him at around 60%, with his nearest rivals trailing about 50 percentage points behind (and this despite the criminal cases). Consistently one of the most popular Republicans in the country, Trump has fundamentally re-shaped the GOP since his upset victory nearly eight years ago. Indeed, his shock 2016 win heralded in this new anti—establishment rhetoric that really seemed to resonate with ordinary Americans – that the liberal elite in Washington D.C. and New York didn’t care about and couldn’t understand your problems. Promising to ‘drain the swamp’ of figures like Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, the consistent popularity of the Trump presidency seems to spell the end for the ‘common-sense conservatism’ of both Bushes.

So, with McCarthy’s removal comes the opportunity to gently push House Republicans (and the broader GOP) in one direction or another. A Jim Jordan victory will mark a major shift in party priorities and values and look favourably upon radical extremists like Gaetz. Whether that happens is yet to be seen, but regardless, the mere act of removing the Speaker sets a dangerous constitutional precedent.

Daniel Hawker

Featured image courtesy of Elijah Mears on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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