Tuesday’s ouster of U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) brings to a head long simmering questions Republican-Populists must confront if the movement is to prove enduring, rather than another in a lengthening line of intermittent and fleeting eruptions, such as the Reform and Tea Parties. In fact, the failure of these earlier attempts to “drain the swamp” can be instructive, at least in what not to do; however, few seem to have the stomach to review, let alone conduct, such a grim post-mortem of these populist carcasses. Be warned: what follows is not for the squeamish.
Founded and funded by billionaire H. Ross Perot, the Reform Party was based upon economic populism. The party vehemently opposed international economic agreements, most notably the North American Free Trade Agreement. Their argument was that such agreements would create a “giant sucking sound” of American jobs leaving for “low cost” countries. In two elections, Mr. Perot ran for president on the Reform Party ticket. In 1992, Mr. Perot drained enough center-right votes to help defeat incumbent GOP president, George H. W. Bush and elect democrat Bill Clinton. In 1996, Mr. Perot doomed the long-shot candidacy of GOP Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) to unseat President Clinton.
Unfortunately for the sustainability of the Reform Party, its biggest asset was its most debilitating liability: H. Ross Perot. In many quarters of the electorate, his persona eclipsed the party and its policies; consequently, the public conflated the party and its policies with a person. When Mr. Perot no longer had even the remotest chance of being elected president, he abdicated his role and the party was forced to try and find someone with the stature to replace him. Though Donald Trump was courted to be the party’s standard bearer in 2000, he demurred; and the Reform Party was a spent political party – though its economic platform would remain and await another movement to adopt and advance it.
The lesson? Despite the strength of its economic populist platform, the Reform Party was viewed by voters as a man not a movement; and, once the man was gone, the movement was stymied.
Flash forward to the Tea Party, which sprouted in the wake of 2008 Wall Street bailout, and blossomed in a losing battle over Obamacare. While the history of the Tea Party is well beyond the scope of this article, it is inarguable the movement grasped and advanced the economic populism of the Reform Party, as well as incorporating an even more biting antipathy toward Big Government’s enabling “Uniparty” and corporate America. The Tea Party was a driving force in the GOP recapturing a Congressional majority in 2010. It was truly a powerful message and movement – until it wasn’t.
Unlike the Reform Party, as a true grassroots movement the Tea Party had no singular leader or titular head. Further, as a grassroot uprising the movement was collectively impatient and frustrated, passionate and patriotic, and, yes, politically naïve. This allowed for too many grifters to latch onto the movement, sprouting all the right slogans on cable TV while behind the scenes feathering their own nests with the GOP establishment’s largesse at the true believing grassroots’ expense. It was a festering sore that kept growing – much to the delight of the swamp that abetted it. On their part, the Tea Party’s true believers’ righteous demands for change rendered them susceptible to the emotional, siren songs of the grifting demagogues. The tension was unsustainable and the movement – never cemented by any singular organization of leader – splintered into impotence. By the 2012 election, the Tea Party was thoroughly coopted by the GOP establishment, as evidenced by now Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) becoming the party’s presidential nominee.
The lesson? Members of a populist movement must not let their emotions get the better of them, because demagogues will try to emotionally exploit them to advance their own venal financial and political interests.
Today, Ouster-Gaetz has crystallized how these crucial lessons from the Reform and Tea Parties must be learned and embraced by the present Republican-Populist movement. If not, the long-term viability of the movement and its much-needed populist policies will be jeopardized.
As with the Reform Party, the Republican-Populist movement’s platform is often overshadowed in the electorate’s mind by the personality of its present head, former President Donald Trump. Like the Tea Party, Republican-Populists are collectively impatient and frustrated, passionate and patriotic, and, yes, politically naïve. Against this history, entered Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).
Throughout the deposing of Speaker McCarthy, the end game of Rep. Gaetz seemed abstruse. While he had much to say regarding why McCarthy had to go, he was less than specific about what would rise from the chaos he and seven other House GOP members created. He would not be running for Speaker. Rep. Gaetz named no particular successor to the deposed Speaker, arguing whoever was elected must be less pliant than McCarthy to the pressures of the Swamp and, of course, could not be a RINO (“Republican in Name Only”). Along these lines, on the eve of “Ouster-Gaetz,” as Rep. Gaetz commenced his procedural assault on Speaker McCarthy, he asserted: “I have enough Republicans where at this point next week, one of two things will happen: Kevin McCarthy won’t be the speaker of the House or he’ll be the speaker of the House working at the pleasure of the Democrats.”
Rep. Gaetz was attempting to insulate himself against the reality he needed to collude with the Democrats to remove Speaker McCarthy. To wit, the vote to depose the Speaker: 210 GOP against it; 8 GOP and 208 Democrats for it. In the final analysis, then, Kevin McCarthy was no longer working as Speaker “at the pleasure of the Democrats.” Interestingly, the standard definition of a RINO is one who colludes with Democrats to sell out their fellow Republicans. It is rather rich how, after voting with a unanimous bloc of 208 Democrats, these 8 Republicans declared victory over RINOs.
It is little wonder during “Ouster-Gaetz” that Rep. Gaetz wanted to rebrand himself from a RINO into a unicorn of MAGA, slaying the swampy critters in GOP House leadership. This is both a short-term necessity and reveals his long-term goal.
Recall the aforementioned lessons of the Reform and Tea Parties. Whenever Mr. Trump departs the political scene, the present Republican-Populist movement has no heir apparent to replace him. The members of the Republican-Populist movement are collectively impatient and frustrated, passionate and patriotic, and, yes, in many instances politically naïve. This leaves them ripe for emotional exploitation. Rep. Gaetz sees this; and is exploiting it.
Chaos is the ally of the ambitious; ergo, Rep. Gaetz will continue to pursue his personal political agenda heedless of the toll it will take upon the Republican-Populist movement, the GOP, and the country. That Rep. Gaetz can advance his aims by settling a personal score with former Speaker McCarthy only serves to please and spur him to further venal exploits. He will rationalize and, at a politically propitious moment, proclaim how it will all be set right once he replaces Mr. Trump at the top of the movement.
For those who think such an assessment may seem an overly dramatic assessment, history affords a plethora of warnings where the least likely climber reaches the mountain top of power. After all, a Corsican peasant became Emperor of France. Still, in the wake of “Ouster-Gaetz,” is it really possible Rep. Gaetz could one day succeed President Trump and lead the Republican-Populist movement?
Not if Republican-Populists learn the lesson of “Ouster-Gaetz:” the most dangerous RINO is the one claiming to be a RINO hunter.
An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.