Matt Gaetz Hasn’t Thought Any of This Through

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, speaks to members of the media outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Oct. 3, 2023. Credit - Bloomberg via Getty Images—© 2023 Bloomberg Finance LP

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His latest political pelt still bloody, Rep. Matt Gaetz lumbered down the east steps of the Capitol just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday. The Florida Republican had just set an inglorious precedent, ousting the first Speaker in U.S. history over his audacious transgression of working with Democrats to keep the government lights on. So outrageous was this move by Kevin McCarthy that Gaetz convinced seven other Republicans to join his short-sighted quest to tip one of the party’s most effective fundraisers from power a mere 10 months in the job.

Gaetz was all smiles and smooth sound bites. Hair slicked back, the tan as fresh as ever. The sun started to sink behind the Capitol as reporters crowded around this evangelist for chaos, hungry for his insight on the carnage he had caused. Gaetz took his time, giving seemingly every reporter a chance to ask a question and hear Gaetz explain Gaetz’s brilliance. Never mind that 210 Republicans—94% of the chamber’s GOP caucus—wanted to stay the course with McCarthy wielding the gavel. And it was exactly as Gaetz had hoped: every shred of coverage from the Capitol put the Florida Republican at the center of the story, exactly where he thought he should be.

(Democrats stood united and made exactly zero efforts to save McCarthy, who kept lobbing barbs at the opposition party in the hopes that enough of his fellow Republicans would rally around him. Even after McCarthy launched a questionable impeachment investigation into President Joe Biden and reneged on a budget deal he had struck with the White House, McCarthy says it was the Democrats who betrayed him.)

But it was quickly apparent in Gaetz’s gaggle that he had not really thought through how any of this ends. He said he would not seek the Speakership for himself; the job is impossible even under ideal conditions, and the current balance of power in the House is the narrowest for a first-term Speaker since 1931. He tepidly endorsed other contenders’ potential candidacies and stridently repeated allegations of McCarthy’s double-crossing duplicity. Gaetz also leveled dings about perceived weak leadership because McCarthy decided to move spending bills efficiently rather than bring up every single outlay as stand-alone, single-subject bills.

“We’ve got to move to the next step. We are not at the end of this process. At most, we’re approaching halftime,” Gaetz said before displaying a lack of self-awareness that stood to set a new standard for Washington. “We’ve got to assemble a governing coalition. We have to build from a place of trust.” This was rich coming in the wake of Gaetz’s scathing tirades on the House floor accusing McCarthy and his mainline Republicans of being pawns of donors and special-interest groups—all while raising cash off the stunt himself. The pivot also came without any drip of irony just moments after Gaetz effectively deposed the Republican leader, plunged the House into chaos for at least another week, and set in motion a fresh batch of fundraising solicitations for his political purse.

And halftime? Wasn’t this pretty advanced heading into the second half?

Even a decade ago, the Gaetz rebellion would have been political suicide. When Newt Gingrich laid the groundwork for his remake of the Republican Party in the 1990s, he drew plenty of criticism—including from President George H.W. Bush’s team who felt betrayed. Upon getting too far over his skis and having lost five net House seats in 1998’s elections, Gingrich bowed out of the role and went home early the next year. Former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan both felt the burn from low-grade firebrands; Boehner packed up and went home, while Ryan was the first GOP Speaker in decades to finish out his term rather than exit early.

But all of that was before Donald Trump codified that burning your own party carries no penalties, and can even offer sweet rewards. It’s terrible for good governance but excellent for building celebrity-based cache. Gaetz, like Trump, ignited the imagination of some of the GOP base, which sees such disruption as meritorious and evidence of a fight on the little guys’ behalf. The loyalists don’t have much use for compromise or even government. Their willful lack of understanding about what is possible in a divided Washington draws them praise from the absolutists while leaving the pragmatists rending their garments.

Trump could bluster his way through such one-sided fights and declare victory when none existed. Just look at the 35-day shutdown that Trump presided over and cost the economy $11 billion because Trump and fellow Republicans could not agree to enough money for border security. Trump simply declared he had won despite an objective absence of fact to back that up.

Gaetz, however, is not as convincing. Trumpism nurses blind belief—or at least suspension of facts—to what its leader declares. There is no Gaetzian corollary, which means running a personality-based racket is unlikely to work. When Gaetz in January preened through McCarthy’s protracted, 15-ballot chase of the gavel, no one outside of his narrow universe saw it for anything more than a stunt. Which means the half-baked idea at halftime carries some real risk for the Republicans, who on Tuesday evening declared work done for the week while they regroup and figure out who will lead them through the next stretch that includes a presidential campaign. Generally speaking, starting a major undertaking without clearly defined objectives or articulated definitions of victory is a losing prospect in Washington; Gaetz essentially launched the procedural equivalent of invading Afghanistan with no obvious way to declare victory or to leave.

For his part, Gaetz does not seem that worried. Where most lawmakers try to shoehorn into history books based on novel legislation, longevity in their seats, or being masterful deal makers, Gaetz seemed to be chasing little more than sheer celebrity. His currency is glitz, not anything printed at the Government Printing Office. The personal is supreme to policy. And, in a parting press conference with reporters at the Capitol, McCarthy had no interest in sparring Gaetz’s ego. “It was all about getting attention from you,” McCarthy said as the clock headed toward 8 p.m. “That’s not governing. That’s not becoming of a member of Congress.”

As for Gaetz’s co-conspirators who bought the rhetoric that McCarthy had abandoned his pledges to his right flank and deserved to be punished, the freshly deposed Speaker used language usually reserved for private chats: “They don’t get to say they’re conservative because they’re angry and they’re chaotic.”

That might be the point: chaos begets coverage. The more Gaetz and Co. can get on television, the more money they can raise. That cash could prove useful for Gaetz, who isn’t expected to slum it in the House forever; he’s said to be eyeing a run for Florida Governor as early as 2026, when incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis hits a term limit, although Gaetz insists his only immediate worry is getting Trump back to the White House. And, from afar, Trump must surely have noticed that the House's disruption looks almost like a tribute to his legacy of gleefully breaking norms without a plan for what comes after.

Rep. Kelly Armstong, a McCarthy ally from North Dakota, diagnosed the ailment in a perfect 30-second summary: “Let’s be clear why we are here: because the incentive structure in this town is completely broken. We no longer value loyalty, integrity, competence, or collaboration. Instead, we have descended to a place where clicks, TV hits, and the never-ending quest for the most mediocre taste of celebrity drives decisions and encourages juvenile behavior that is so far beneath this esteemed body.”

The problem: there is no antidote, only anecdotes about its success. It seems the malady is only going to mutate and get more pernicious. Gaetz knows it well. His colleagues know it begrudgingly. Trump knows it best. And Washington simply has not figured out how to adapt or how to work with a major party that has elements that prioritize demolishing everything that runs afoul of their fevered dreams of governance by dynamite.

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