Is the Republican Party going to regret letting Marjorie Taylor Greene act like that?

McCarthy can’t punish the most disruptive members of the GOP, but allowing them to run afoul without consequences means he gets stuck with their bad headlines

Eric Garcia
Thursday 09 February 2023 09:41 GMT
Marjorie Taylor Green heckles Biden as president challenges GOP

Ahead of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he did not want Republicans to misbehave during the speech, telling members “cameras are on” and “the mics are hot.”

Mr McCarthy had tried to pre-empt the president by delivering an address on Monday laying out his terms for debt ceiling negotiations. Save for saying that Social Security and Medicare are “off the table,” after years of conservatives saying they needed to be reformed and made solvent, it was mostly typical Republican fare about fiscal responsibility.

Mr McCarthy’s hopes of GOP civility went up in smoke as soon as Mr Biden mentioned how some Republicans wanted to let Social Security and Medicare sunset, which led to Republicans booing and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia to call the president “a liar.” Later in the evening when the president talked about people dying of fentanynl overdoses, Ms Greene shouted that “it’s coming from China” and Representative Andy Ogles went a step further saying “it’s your fault.” That led Mr McCarthy to deliver a stern shush and a murderous glare.

But regardless of how disappointed Mr McCarthy might be in the fact that his conference couldn’t sit stoically for an hour, he really can’t mete out consequences the way his predecessors once did. That’s because he has made the decision to align himself with the far-right flank of the party.

If Mr McCarthy were to sanction his rowdiest members, they could in turn torpedo his speakership.

Jeering has become far more common during joint addresses to Congress, and certainly more so than when the House censured Representative Joe Wilson for yelling “you lie” during Barack Obama’s address in 2009. Those were the nascent days of the Tea Party movement that would fundamentally alter the GOP and create an on-ramp for the House Freedom Caucus and Donald Trump’s presidency.

Since then, backbenchers have learned they can get on cable news and raise gobs of money mostly through making noise rather than policy. Furthermore, Mr McCarthy may furrow his brow, but he has already made the decision that, to earn the speaker’s gavel, he’ll accommodate the loudest voices in the room. He bear-hugged Ms Greene to earn the support from his right flank and made a series of concessions to most of his dissenters.

But the jeers and heckles, combined with Mr Biden answering with a grin and needling them without being too vitriolic, could wind up hurting Republicans when they try to make their case to the American people during any type of negotiations, from the debt limit, to keeping the government open to spending on Ukraine. If the rowdiest voices in the room drown Mr McCarthy out and he doesn’t punish them, they will only grow more ornery.

And it’s not just in the House of Representatives. While Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in her rebuttal that “the choice is between normal or crazy,” the former Trump administration press secretary took a page from right-wing firebrands and focused her address on banning terms like “Latinx”. She accused Mr Biden of being captive “to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.” Those words may titillate people who consume a diet of Fox and Newsmax, but they hardly appeal to median voters.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can’t laugh too much at Mr McCarthy’s misfortune. The Republican who proposed the Social Security plan Mr Biden criticised was none other than Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who blew the GOP’s chance at flipping the Senate last year as National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman while Mr Biden hammered his plan.

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