For all the attention given to “destructionists” like Reps. Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert as they urged McCarthy to bow down and ask for his support, a larger group of Republicans burst from the Fox News bubble and started appearing on CNN and even MSNBC. And not just the shrunken handful of moderates like Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania who must maintain support beyond the Republican base to keep getting elected. Die-hard conservatives also showed up. Boebert herself consented to an interview on MSNBC.
According to CNN, more than 50 current and former members of the Republican House appeared on its airwaves in the final week of the McCarthy drama. It’s a stark turnaround from the Trump years, when the former president’s attacks on CNN as “fake news” led most Republicans to shun him for the more comfortable confines of Fox News and Newsmax.
From what I’ve gathered from talking to Republican strategists and pollsters, at least four factors are driving this new trend. First, Trump himself is a greatly diminished force, not just because his exile to Mar-a-Lago let other figures overshadow him, but because the Republicans’ poor performance last November shattered his mystique. He does not inspire terror among Republican lawmakers as he once did.
Second, more House Republicans need to cater to voters whose primary allegiance is not to Trump or even the GOP. Eighteen Republicans won House seats in districts that voted for Biden in 2020 — twice as many as last Congress. They know they will run again in two years with Biden likely on the ballot; they will have to win Democratic and Moderate votes. So with McCarthy speaking up, a growing number of those Republicans in Biden’s district are turning to one of their own: Rep. George Santos of New York (of which Biden’s district held 55% to 44%). In a world where Trump still ruled with an iron fist, Republicans might feel compelled to defend or at least ignore a nonsensical charlatan like Santos. Now even Fox News feels comfortable shedding light on it.
Third, many of their own constituents claim to want something beyond endless partisan warfare. In a recent CBS News poll, 48% of Republican voters say they want the new Republican House majority to prioritize “working with Biden and the Democrats.” While passing actual bipartisan legislation might be overkill, showing up on CNN or MSNBC at least feels like walking across the aisle.
Finally, the majority of the House Republican caucus who support McCarthy without the need for arm shots or personal phone calls from Trump understand that they must balance the chaos unleashed by the “Never Kevins” during the speakers’ fight with a semblance of normality that can win public support, since the next two years are going to be a constant struggle for caucus control. Republican pollsters have been clear with their clients about Trump’s heavy squeeze on the party’s fortunes in the last election. Nothing about the calamity of the speakers’ race suggests that these problems will go away. The only way for mainstream Republicans to maintain even a tenuous hold on the House is to isolate hardliners. And it’s hard to portray your fellow Republicans as extremists if you limit yourself to appearing on Fox News and Newsmax — outlets that aren’t, shall we say, tailor-made to recognize the distinction.
Anyone who glued themselves to cable news during the 15 ballots it took to elect a speaker likely caught on to the culture shock that occurred when members of the House Republican ventured into mainstream media . Like travelers from a distant galaxy arriving on a new planet, their encounters have not always gone smoothly. Texas Rep. Troy Nehls marveled on-air as he appeared on the “Clinton News Network” and addressed CNN host Erin Burnett as “a young woman “, which earned him a public rebuke.
But overall, the Republicans did an effective job of explaining their position and containing the madness of the speaker’s race until McCarthy finally managed to limp across the finish line. It’s unlikely anyone will put Rachel Maddow’s producers on speed dial. But at least some Republicans seem to recognize that McCarthy’s fate — and theirs — hinges on overcoming their hostility to the mainstream media and instead using it to push back their extremist fringe.
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Joshua Green is national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the President.”
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