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Opinion: How Democrats just helped the MAGA wing of Congress

Opinion by Patrick T. Brown

(CNN) — Two months before the 2022 midterms, President Joe Biden stood flanked by two US Marines in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and issued some of the harshest words of his presidency.

“Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden intoned, calling “extreme MAGA Republicans … a ‘clear and present danger to our democracy.’”

Clearly, some in the president’s party missed the memo.

On Tuesday, Democrats in the House decided to side with eight Republicans who voted to remove their follow party member, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), from his role as speaker. Instead of siding with stability, Democrats chose to double down on partisanship. For the party that has talked repeatedly about wanting to restore norms of good government, it was a cynical display of short-term political gain at the expense of the long-term functioning of our political institutions.

To be clear, the predicament originated with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), one of the MAGA-type Republicans Biden seemed to be referencing and a consistent thorn in the side of McCarthy since the infamous 15 ballots it took for McCarthy to secure the speakership in January. As I wrote for CNN at the time, “McCarthy’s travails illustrate how trying to lead in an era when parties and institutions are held captive by an anti-establishment mentality will be a continual exercise in frustration.”

Over the past 10 months, Gaetz held the threat of a motion to vacate — the ability to call a vote at any time to oust the speaker — over McCarthy like the sword of Damocles. The California Republican’s decision last weekend to rely on Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown was the weapon Gaetz needed to make good on his threat.

Gaetz’s move gave Democrats an opportunity to reward McCarthy for having kept the government open. Two-hundred-and-nine Democrats joined 126 Republicans to pass the last-minute deal that averted a shutdown, and many were initially cautiously open to securing a deal to save McCarthy’s speakership. “I think if he’s willing to work together on things,” a member of Congress told CNN at the time, “there will be enough of us to protect him.”

Michael Wear, a speaker and strategist at the intersection of faith and politics, who previously led faith outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, was not alone in being hopeful that McCarthy’s decision to introduce a stop-gap spending measure in a bipartisan manner, and Democrats’ willingness to sign onto it, signaled “promise for those who want our politics to choose something greater than partisan warfare.”

Alas, those hopes were not fulfilled. House Democrats acted as enablers for those Republicans who sought McCarthy’s ouster, effectively helping to punish him for compromising on keeping the government open.

Admittedly, there had already been no shortage of bad blood between McCarthy and Democrats, who were perturbed by his willingness to indulge his right flank, his flip-flop on whether Trump should be considered responsible for the events of January 6, 2021, and his launch of an impeachment inquiry against Biden even before the possibility of a shutdown picked up speed. And then, in the days surrounding the bipartisan spending deal, Democrats were reportedly angered not just by McCarthy’s chaotic process for passing the deal, but also by a CBS interview in which McCarthy blamed them, rather than his far-right flank, for the prospect of a shutdown.

Democrats also argued that an intra-caucus squabble was something for which Republicans owned responsibility. “It was McCarthy’s choice to empower [the right wing] further,” Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York posted on X, formerly Twitter. “He protected them & punished those who bucked Trump. He’s not a victim.”

But Democrats didn’t have to like McCarthy or approve of everything he’s done to understand that his ouster only empowers the “MAGA Republicans” decried by Biden and opposed by Ocasio-Cortez as one of the gravest threats facing the country.

Gaetz is the loudest voice of a small coalition of Republicans who seem to care less about specific policy than in delivering on an uncompromising approach to politics — and, along the way, burnishing their brand for social media, cable news hits or future runs for office. Republicans threatening retribution in the form of cutting off fundraising dollars or supporting primary opponents against Gaetz, Rep. Nancy Mace [(R-SC)] and others who participated in the revolt are right to do so. But given the Republicans’ narrow majority and the party’s lack of a unifying vision, it seems likely this faction will exhibit the same behavior when the next speaker is chosen.

A little bipartisanship could have thwarted their attempt. Democrats didn’t even have to affirmatively support McCarthy; simply voting “present” would have lowered the threshold necessary for the former speaker to maintain a majority. Instead, Democrats helped those they see as “extreme MAGA Republicans” while allowing the House to be thrown into chaos amid the fraught prospect of choosing a new speaker as the clock ticks down to the next shutdown deadline.

Through the lens of crass electoral politics, Democrats may have calculated correctly, at least in the short term. The latest Gallup poll shows that the percentage of Americans who say they trust Republicans to manage the economy over Democrats is at an all-time high. Allowing Republicans to shoot themselves in the foot surely helps strengthen the Democrats’ argument that voters shouldn’t entrust them with control of Congress. Democrats can also tell their base they kept their hands pure rather than casting a vote for a speaker many progressives saw as morally compromised.

But what’s best for the Democratic Party is not what’s best for the country, and it’s hypocritical for Democrats not to acknowledge that. It is highly unlikely that McCarthy’s replacement will be any more amenable to working across the aisle than the California Republican was. He or she will be beholden to the same forces that made McCarthy’s job near-impossible, just like former Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan before him. The result will likely be future deadlock, a political process that works even less well and a long-term degradation of the constitutional order in which neither party sees any gain in doing the right thing instead of taking a cheap win.

Biden, like other Democrats, has made political hay out of claiming that today’s GOP “ain’t your father’s Republican Party.” Perhaps that’s so. But if they truly long for the purported halcyon days of political compromise and sober government, siding with a handful of Republican renegades to throw the business of the House into disarray is a funny way of showing it. When faced with the choice to reward bipartisanship or exploit GOP divisions for political gains, Democrats chose the latter.

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