The Deeper Meaning of Scalise’s One Day Speakership (No Really…)

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks as House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) listens (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Just moments ago news broke that Steve Scalise had withdrawn his bid to be Speaker of the House. This is a genuinely stunning development, even though I semi-predicted it earlier today. I said it half in jest. But we live in an age when half-jokes often come to pass rapidly.

I had a conversation this evening that allowed me to clarify some of my own thinking about these developments. After Scalise won the caucus Speakership vote you had a slow trickle of members saying “I’m still for Jim Jordan.” Then later you had news reports asking, “Can Steve Scalise get to 217?”

There’s a category, conceptual breakdown here that is kind of hiding in plain view. What do these members mean they’re still for Jim Jordan? He lost. It’s over. Scalise is the Republican Speaker candidate. End of story.

Hopefully it’s clear that I’m not making a case for Steve Scalise. I’m certainly not making a case for Jim Jordan. But there’s an elemental breakdown here that transcends the individuals involved. Participating in a majority organizational vote means, if sometimes only implicitly, abiding by its results. The caucus vote wasn’t a straw poll or an advisory opinion. It’s binding. It’s over. And yet it was treated as basically a given, in the GOP caucus and in the press coverage, that Scalise, having won the vote, then had to build from the 113 he got in the caucus vote to 217.

You’re probably saying: We know this Josh. They’re a mess. But we know this.

But I think that’s only a measure of how much this has been normalized when it’s actually completely abnormal. The literal definition of a caucus in American political usage is a defined group that collectively decides on actions by majority vote and then acts in unison in a parliamentary context.

From one perspective this is no more than a replay of what happened in January. A group of holdouts refused to vote for the caucus’s candidate. But there’s something a bit different. That was the rump of the ‘Freedom Caucus’, an at least somewhat ideologically coherent trouble-making group that, as I’ve explained in a few posts, has been playing this game going back more than a decade. But the holdouts for Scalise were more various — right, left, a heavy load of attention-seekers who didn’t bother to put forward any kind of reason that made any sense. It’s like the virus had escaped the lab. It wasn’t just Freedom Caucus weirdos anymore. It’s now treated as a given that caucus elections are purely advisory or essentially meaningless.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer caucus, of course. But we should note that there’s a clear thread connecting this to 2020 rigged electionism and, perhaps more tightly, the dramas of debt ceiling hostage-taking and government shutdowns. The premise of all those dramas is that they’re what you do when you don’t have the votes to do what you want. If you’ve got the votes in the Congress and a President who will sign your bills, you just do it. Threatening to shut down the government is what you do when you don’t. Do what I say even though I don’t have the votes or I start breaking things. That’s the bottom line behind every one of these gambits.

It’s all cut from the same cloth.

The best and perhaps only path for Scalise was to force the matter. What do you mean: Do I have the votes? The election already happened. I won. It’s over. If you weren’t going to honor the results you shouldn’t have shown up to vote. If people don’t want to honor the commitment they made then lets put everyone on the record. That is kind of what McCarthy did. Of course, he also negotiated. Clearly Scalise didn’t think that was possible. As I said, couldn’t happen to a nicer caucus. The pathogen they developed to break the republic ended up infecting them too. It’s of a piece with election denialism and parliamentary terrorism. All fruit of the same poison tree.

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