“When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice,” William James, one of the most prominent American philosophers of the 19th Century, once said.
James’ words rang through my head over the last 24 hours as it became more and more clear that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, wasn’t actually going to make a decision about whether Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s past extremist and intolerant comments should result in the Georgia congresswoman being stripped of her committee assignments.
After a lengthy meeting with Greene on Tuesday night in which she refused to apologize for her past actions, a person with knowledge of the matter told CNN, McCarthy foisted the matter onto the Republican Steering Committee. But the Steering Committee adjourned Tuesday night without rendering a decision on Greene. So McCarthy turned to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, for help. But a meeting between the two men earlier Wednesday produced no resolution to the problem.
“I spoke to Leader McCarthy this morning, and it is clear there is no alternative to holding a floor vote on the resolution to remove Rep. Greene from her committee assignments,” Hoyer said in a statement following the meeting. “The Rules Committee will meet this afternoon, and the House will vote on the resolution tomorrow.”
Which means that, almost certainly, the fate of Greene’s committee service will be left to the Democratic House majority – taking McCarthy entirely (or mostly) out of the picture.
In short: By refusing to make a choice on Greene’s fate, McCarthy made a choice. And it’s one with plenty of repercussions – none of them good for the Republican leader.
Late Wednesday afternoon, McCarthy sought to paint his inaction as some sort of decision – and laid the blame for not deescalating the situation on Democrats.
“I understand that Marjorie’s comments have caused deep wounds to many and as a result, I offered Majority Leader Hoyer a path to lower the temperature and address these concerns. Instead of coming together to do that, the Democrats are choosing to raise the temperature by taking the unprecedented step to further their partisan power grab regarding the committee assignments of the other party,” McCarthy said in a statement.
McCarthy, as have many of his Republican colleagues over the last few days, sought to argue that Greene’s past comments were equivalent to comments made by Democratic members including Rep. Ilhan Omar. But that is whataboutism of the first sort. Greene’s comments are far more offensive and extreme than anything uttered by these Democratic members.
What happened here is simple. McCarthy is stuck between the establishment wing of the Republican Party (represented by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, most notably) and the Trump wing, of which Greene is very much a leading light.
He is paralyzed into indecision because a) he doesn’t want to lose the Party’s big-dollar donors (the vast majority of which side with McConnell and against Greene) and b) he knows that a sizable chunk of his House conference is more in line, ideologically and tonally, with Greene than with McConnell or Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney.
McCarthy needs the major donors to finance the 2022 midterm campaign that he hopes will return Republicans to the majority and propel him to the speaker job. And/but he needs the support of the Trump wing – as represented by Greene – in order to wind up as speaker, and not face a challenge from the likes of Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio or some other Trumpy Republican member.
And so, he didn’t know which side to take. So he took neither. And in so doing, almost certainly pissed off both sides of the equation.
Greene will have wanted McCarthy to reject, uh, liberal demands for her to be punished. The establishment wing will see McCarthy’s non-choice as not only an abdication of his responsibilities as a leader within the party but also a missed opportunity to put Trump (and his allies) in the GOP’s rear-view mirror.
It’s an absolute lose-lose for McCarthy. He looks utterly feckless and without conviction. And spinning this all forward, McCarthy’s fence-sitting and responsibility passing on the Greene issue will likely complicate his efforts to lead the conference on other thorny issues going forward.
Leadership isn’t about passing the buck. And that’s exactly what McCarthy did here.