Ignoring the Anti-McCarthy Faction's Avowed Goals, The New York Times Sees Only 'Chaos and Confusion'

The paper attributes the fight over the election of the next House speaker to "anti-establishment fervor" and a lust for "personal power."


What unites the Republicans who are resisting the election of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.), the former House minority leader, as speaker? According to a New York Times article published yesterday, it is their devotion to Donald Trump and his fantasy of a stolen presidential election. Yet today the Times noted that McCarthy's opponents were completely unfazed by the former president's endorsement of McCarthy and calls for Republican unity.

If this fight is not about Trump, what is it about? Unlike previous GOP "insurgent movements" that "aspired to change the vision of the party," Times reporters Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein aver in a "news analysis," these rebels "are focused far more on their personal power." Lerer and Epstein attribute that characterization to "Republican critics," meaning supporters of a man who is desperately trying to maintain his own personal power.

The Times clearly shares the Republican establishment's dismay at the disruption caused by the 20 GOP legislators who have refused to support McCarthy. "After two days of chaos and confusion on the House floor," Lerer and Epstein say, "Republicans have made it abundantly clear who is leading their party: absolutely no one."

This distaste for the messiness of representative government blinds Lerer and Epstein to the possibility that actual disagreements about process and policy might be driving McCarthy's opponents. "With no unified legislative agenda, clear leadership or shared vision for the country," they write, "Republicans find themselves mired in intraparty warfare, defined by a fringe element that seems more eager to tear down the House than to rebuild the foundation of a political party that has faced disappointment in the past three national elections." They say "the anti-establishment fervor that accompanied [Trump's] rise to power" now threatens to "devour the entire party."

A quote from Karl Rove, "the Republican strategist who embodies the party's pre-Trump era," captures the main thrust of the piece. "The members who began this have little interest in legislating, but are most interested in burning down the existing Republican leadership structure," he says. "Their behavior shows the absence of power corrupts just as absolutely as power does."

I'm not sure what that means, but Rove is clearly appalled by the fact that 20 Republicans have declined to ratify the coronation of the presumptive heir to the House speaker's throne, instead insisting on an actual election. Lerer, Epstein, and their colleagues at the Times likewise seem shocked by that development.

"Of the more than 120 times since 1789 that the House has elected a new speaker, there have been only 14 instances in which the process required multiple ballots," Capitol reporter Catie Edmondson notes. "Every speaker since 1923 has been able to clinch the gavel after just one vote," Edmondson says, although she concedes that "there are precedents in the House's long history for the current disarray."

While the Times sees only "chaos," "confusion," and "disarray," McCarthy's opponents see an opportunity to achieve specific goals. As Reason's Eric Boehm notes, those goals include reducing the speaker's power by making his position less secure, increasing the ability of individual legislators to cut spending through amendments, and requiring a supermajority to approve earmarks on a case-by-case basis.

Former Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.), whom no one would confuse with a MAGA Republican, sees merit in the rebels' complaints about the concentration of power in Congress, a situation he has frequently decried. "We have an oligarchy right now," Amash told Reason's Robby Soave. "It's the leaders of the parties in Congress, and it's the president of the United States. Those people are deciding everything."

In addition to procedural changes, Boehm notes, the anti-McCarthy faction is pursuing a "mixed bag" of policies, including "a balanced budget, passage of the Fair Tax Act (which would replace the federal income, payroll, and estate taxes with a national sales tax), [and] passage of a proposal crafted by Texas Republicans that aims to crack down on illegal immigration." These ideas may be good or bad, but there is nothing inherently unseemly about trying to advance them by leveraging the power to elect the speaker. And neither the procedural reforms nor the legislation the dissidents want amount to pursuing "personal power" for its own sake.

The Times ignores this substantive agenda, dismissing the rebels as cranks who are contradictorily driven by blind support for Trump (even as they defy his wishes), extreme conservatism, "anti-establishment fervor," and a lust for power. These legislators include "some of the chamber's most hard-right lawmakers,"Danielle Ivory, Charlie Smart, and  reported yesterday. "Most denied the 2020 election, are members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, or both."

Lending credence to Trump's wild claims about massive election fraud, whether sincerely or cynically, surely does not reflect well on a legislator. But there is nothing conservative about it. Nor does allegiance to Trump or obeisance to his whims signify a commitment to conservative principles, since the man himself does not seem to have any principles beyond his own self-interest. This article about "how far right" the anti-McCarthy Republicans are pays no attention to anything that might connect their ideological convictions to their actions.

To do that, you would need to look at their avowed goals, which combine fiscal conservatism, tax reform, concern about illegal immigration, and discontent with the way the House operates. Whatever you might think of those positions, they are obviously distinct from kowtowing to Trump, which McCarthy's opponents are manifestly not doing in this case.

"None of Mr. McCarthy's opponents reversed course after receiving calls from Mr. Trump encouraging them to do so," Lerer and Epstein note. If they are not in it for him, the Times suggests, they must be in it for themselves, because they cannot possibly be trying to accomplish what they say they are trying to accomplish—a proposition so absurd that it is not even worth considering.