Opinion: Maybe Matt Gaetz is right

File phot/Damon Winter/The New York Times / Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks to the media after the first Republican presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Aug. 23, 2023. "The dysfunctional dance taking place in the House between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his right flank has driven me to consider something I never imagined possible: that Matt Gaetz is right," New York Times columnist Michelle Cottle writes.

The dysfunctional dance taking place in the House between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his right flank has driven me to consider something I never imagined possible: that Matt Gaetz is right.

A House speaker can be successful only with the confidence of the members who put him or her in charge, when he or she can follow through on promises made and concessions extracted. Indeed, there may be no job in American government that calls for crackerjack dealmaking skills more than that of speaker: so many egos, alliances and grievances to manage to keep things moving.

McCarthy, in his desperate pursuit of the speakership last winter, ran around making promises willy-nilly to the House's small band of right-wingers, and he will now rise and fall on how he handles those commitments and expectations. So far, things are not looking good for Kev — and, by extension, for a functional Congress.

Miffed at the speaker's handling of the spending fight, the right's hard-liners have been threatening to oust him, shut down the government or both. His attempt to placate them by announcing an impeachment investigation into President Joe Biden went over poorly. Gaetz, the Florida member of Congress and frontman for the rebels who temporarily blocked McCarthy's speakership in January, dismissed the move as a disingenuous "baby step," accused him of being "out of compliance" with his commitments to hard-liners and threatened to force daily votes to vacate the chair.

The speaker is clearly fed up with being bullied by his radicals. But here's the thing. Gaetz & Co. have a point: McCarthy is out of compliance with several of his promises — or at least several they claim he made. So if the rabble-rousers want to be taken seriously going forward, they need to stop all the chest-thumping. It's time to step up and file the flipping motion.

The extremists are easy to denounce, but they are not to blame for the chaos consuming the House. It is McCarthy who led them to believe he would champion their policies and priorities. And it is McCarthy who elevated their influence in the conference.

Some of what McCarthy committed to was beyond his power to deliver. Take the ongoing showdown over government funding. He pledged to try to cap discretionary spending at 2022 levels or lower. But with the Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House, that is a non-starter. Worse, McCarthy effectively gave the hard-liners license to play chicken with the debt ceiling.

Am I rooting for the hard-liners to get their way on policy matters such as ... well, anything? Good Lord, no. But I get their frustration and anger. McCarthy created and unleashed this right-wing monster to serve his own ambitions. And yet somehow he seems flummoxed that it is now smashing up things and demanding its due.

Of course, there are practical reasons Gaetz et al. might opt not to boot the speaker. For all their bluster, he may be the best they can hope for. He won't get them everything they want, but he is willing to be their dancing monkey in plenty of situations. At the same time, he gives the conference enough of a sheen of establishment respectability to retain the support of its nonwingers and to not terrify more moderate voters.

This speaker is often said to have made a deal with the devil. But the conference's hard-liners have made one with a cynical, inconstant opportunist. They clearly suspect their slippery chief never intended to deliver on a whole host of stuff they care about, just as they know deep down that an individual so hollow is fundamentally untrustworthy. But until someone is willing to break this stalemate, we are all stuck with their twisted, codependent relationship.

The New York Times