Democrats should stand up to Matt Gaetz and save Kevin McCarthy as House speaker

We’ve heard it for years, decades even. Candidates for office and elected officials say they want to “bring people together.” In nearly every instance that has failed, if those reciting the phrase even meant the words they spoke. Rather, it seems there is always a reversion to “base politics,” where the most intransigent players dominate.

We are at a time of near-record polarization in American politics, where rancor and division seem to rule the day. Institutions that were once on a pedestal are not trusted or respected. Large majorities of Americans report that they do not want either of the two frontrunners for their party’s nomination to run for president of the United States.

It’s a rough time in American politics.

As if on cue, another low point is upon us. After narrowly avoiding a government shutdown last weekend, a new battle is taking place on Capitol Hill. For the first time in more than 110 years there is an attempt to unseat the speaker of the House.

Republicans are fractured in Congress (and in the electorate). Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., says he has seen enough from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. McCarthy hasn’t run the People’s House to Gaetz’s satisfaction, so he’s filed a motion to vacate, which would remove McCarthy as speaker if Gaetz has his way.

If McCarthy is removed, another speaker has to be chosen. Does anyone remember the last time this question was before the House? It took four days in January to elect McCarthy to the speakership because of the fractures in the GOP. It was the most protracted vote for speaker since the mid-1800s.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters after a closed-door meeting with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and other House Republicans after Gaetz filed a motion to oust McCarthy from his leadership role, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., talks to reporters after a closed-door meeting with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and other House Republicans after Gaetz filed a motion to oust McCarthy from his leadership role, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

Drama over House speaker is a distraction from critical issues

The nation faces critical issues – immigration, inflation, among others, and, yes, funding the government after the latest stopgap runs its course. How many Americans want the House of Representatives tied in knots for who knows how long trying to figure out who the next speaker will be? The House can take no action unless a speaker has been elected (although committees can continue to meet).

Gaetz has enough Republican members on his side to block tabling the motion to remove McCarthy as speaker. Indeed, the group of Republicans who caused the need for 15 ballots to elect McCarthy in January proved that the speaker doesn’t have his whole conference with him.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, filed a motion Monday night to remove California Republican Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, filed a motion Monday night to remove California Republican Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the House.

But here’s the opportunity: Democrats can deliver the votes McCarty needs to remain speaker. What if some Democrats join some Republicans and the two parties come together to keep McCarthy as speaker? So far, they haven't. But it's still not too late for them to set aside partisanship for the good of the nation.

Elections have consequences. The GOP has more members of the House than the Democrats do. That means they get to run the show. Democrats could show some statesmanship, pragmatism and magnanimity. They could put the institution of the House above petty politics and nip the challenge to McCarthy in the bud so the House can do its work.

Clown Caucus, not true conservatives: Don't give brats like Gaetz any more attention than they deserve (which is zero)

This is not an argument about who is right about different policy alternatives – McCarthy, Gaetz, other Republicans, or Democrats. It’s an argument about priorities.

And maybe, just maybe, there’s an opportunity to take a step toward a more functional Congress and actually have some of those elected officials who say they want to bring people together deliver on that pledge.

There will be a Republican speaker moving forward. Democrats know this. So the non-political costs of voting to keep McCarthy in that role are not terribly high. But the benefits to the institution would be great as would the signal it would send to the American public.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., makes his way to the House chambers to vote on the motion to vacate his speaker seat on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., makes his way to the House chambers to vote on the motion to vacate his speaker seat on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Moderate leaders in House could set example of bipartisanship

Consider the example set if McCarthy were retained as speaker by the non-extreme voices in the Republican and Democratic parties.

By helping to squash the challenge to McCarthy, Democrats could save the Congress from a lot of wasted time; time that’s needed to, you know, govern.

McCarthy needs Democrats and he knows it. Welcome to actual governing!

It appears Democrats will have multiple chances at this. They did not vote with the majority of Republican members to table Gaetz’s motion on Tuesday. But Democrats and Republicans could still find a way to work toward a resolution.

And who knows, maybe this would be the first step in responsible representatives – from both sides of the aisle – working together. That is what large majorities of Americans say that they want their government to do.

But political incentives in the polarized politics of today make that seem almost impossible to deliver. The threat of being “primaried” by a member of one’s own party usually makes the risk of working with the other side too high.

Opinion alerts: Get columns from your favorite columnists + expert analysis on top issues, delivered straight to your device through the USA TODAY app. Don't have the app? Download it for free from your app store.

While Democrats are in the minority in the House, there’s something known as the loyal opposition – offering new ideas to problems, challenging the majority. But being part of the loyal opposition isn’t about playing politics. It’s about trying to make the country better. It’s not about trying to extract concessions as some Democrats have said they will need to do to help McCarthy. Not everything needs to be a political calculation, a political maneuver or a political negotiation.

The nation will not come out of this polarized and rancor-filled era until enough leaders say enough is enough and take action that demonstrates that petty politics isn’t going to rule the day. This week on Capitol Hill could be an opportunity to show that we’re ready to turn a corner.

David A. Dulio is a distinguished professor of political science and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Democrats help save McCarthy as House speaker? They should