The first two weeks of the Biden presidency provide a glimpse into our political future. While Joe Biden has had a seamless rollout, Republicans have been mired in the controversy surrounding the conspiracy theories espoused by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). Greene has, among other things, called for the executions of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), President Barack Obama and former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton; harassed a teenager who survived the carnage at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; and questioned whether a plane actually hit the Pentagon on 9/11.
While Biden has had a remarkably successful two weeks, Greene has, in effect, become a spokesperson for her party. A recent poll finds Greene with a plus 10 percentage-point favorability rating among Republicans, while Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who holds the third-highest position in the House GOP leadership and supported President Trump’s impeachment, has a minus 28 percent rating. Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president and spokesperson for establishment conservatives, suddenly finds herself a minority within a minority while Greene dominates cable news.
How did it come to this? One reason is the weakness of the House Republican leadership. Strong leaders exercise real power. Pelosi is one. Emulating Sam Rayburn, one of the most powerful speakers in history, Pelosi has flexed her political muscle since returning to the speakership. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is not a strong leader, and never was. Back when Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) unexpectedly resigned, McCarthy, then Boehner’s number two, was the presumptive heir apparent. But McCarthy did not have the votes. Instead, House Republicans drafted Ways and Means Committee chair and former vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) into the speaker’s slot — a decision Ryan came to regret. As speaker, Ryan dealt with an unruly Freedom Caucus, and later had an uneasy relationship with Donald Trump. When Ryan happily departed, the long-serving McCarthy was the obvious, but reluctant, choice.
McCarthy’s vulnerability was evident from the start. After years of offensive comments, McCarthy and the Republican Party moved against Iowa Rep. Steve King in 2019, but only after he became an object of scorn back home. As one GOP aide put it, King won “a lifetime achievement award for awful comments.” The final straw was a New York Times interview in which King said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” McCarthy blocked King from serving on the House Judiciary and Agriculture committees. Iowa voters later finished the job, voting King out of office in a 2020 GOP primary.
Today, McCarthy’s weakness is fully on display. In the month since the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots, McCarthy has gone from saying Trump “bears responsibility” for the assault to asserting that we are all to blame. McCarthy’s weakened stance led to an unhappy party compromise: Greene could keep her committee assignments and Cheney would remain in the leadership. While the caucus reluctantly stood by Cheney (despite one-third wanting to oust her), Greene won a standing ovation from some of its members.
Meanwhile, the full House, acting with Pelosi’s support and a unanimous vote from Democrats, stripped Greene of her committee assignments, one more reflection of the speaker’s power. Undoubtedly, Greene will wear her rebuke as a badge of honor and use it as one more illustration of a liberal “cancel culture.” Referring to congressional Democrats, Greene says: “They don’t realize they are helping me. I can’t believe how dumb they are.”
But Greene’s presence is a public relations nightmare. Today, congressional minorities do little legislating but lots of posturing. In an age of endless cable news, members of both parties seek media attention, and the minority especially wants airtime to express its views. As freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) candidly admitted, “I have built my staff around comms [communications] rather than legislation.” Wanting to make headlines himself, Cawthorn suggested before the Jan. 6 riots that Republicans “lightly threaten” Democrats who voted to certify Joe Biden’s win.
Other Republicans like Greene and Cawthorn seek their moments in the media glare. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), for one, totes her gun around the Capitol grounds, while Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) tried to bypass magnetometers to bring his weapon onto the House floor. Expertise in communications that generate controversy, not policy, means these Republican firebrands are becoming the voice of the party. Promising to be a “very loud, vocal voice,” Greene intends to push her party even further “to the right” and take her message “all over the country.”
Greene and others like her owe their existence in Congress to two things: weak leaders and partisan gerrymandering. The Republican Party is in a fragile position because it does not control the presidency. Losing presidential candidates are the titular leaders of their parties, often vanishing into the political wilderness. Donald Trump is trying to break that mold, and Republican officeholders know that the de-platformed president retains a powerful grip on their base.
Nonetheless, there are emerging voices wanting to claim the GOP mantle. Without the presidency, a party frequently struggles to find its voice. During the Reagan years, for example, House Speaker Tip O’Neill was unexpectedly thrust into the limelight, and he sharpened his communications skills to fit into his new role. But finding a party spokesperson takes both time and a winning candidate — precious moments in a media age where cable television seeks voices who agitate rather than unify.
Presidents exercise real power within their party. And they can quickly kill controversies like the ones posed by Greene. In 2002, George W. Bush denounced Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott after Lott praised segregationist Strom Thurmond, saying that if voters had elected the third-party presidential candidate in 1948, “we wouldn’t have had these problems over all these years.” Bush’s statement that Lott’s comments were “offensive and wrong” sealed Lott’s fate, and he resigned from Congress.
In the end, the party was spared embarrassment. After all, better to lose a seat than create a long-term problem. Greene’s Republican primary opponent, Dr. John Cowan, begged Kevin McCarthy to intervene on his behalf. But Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, described Greene as “exactly the kind of fighter needed in Washington to stand with me against the radical left.” Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, agreed, saying, “We cannot wait to welcome her to Congress.” Trump gave his imprimatur, tweeting that Greene was “a real WINNER.”
Greene’s media presence points to another problem — gerrymandering. There is an old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” In 2010, dissatisfied voters handed Republicans the keys to Congress along with control of several state legislatures. The party immediately went to work, artfully redrawing congressional districts designed to keep them in power for a decade. It didn’t quite work out that way, as Donald Trump alienated enough suburbanites to prompt a revolt in 2018. But many safe GOP districts remain, of which Greene’s is one.
After winning her primary, Greene was elected with 75 percent of the vote. Her reelection is hardly in jeopardy, thanks to the media spotlight and the campaign funds she is now able to raise. For Republicans like her, the primary is everything and the general election is a mere formality. But for Republicans in more competitive contests, Greene alienates voters they need — something the 11 House Republicans who voted with the Democrats to strip Greene of her committee assignments realize.
Fearing upcoming midterm losses, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has denounced Greene’s “loony lies” as a “cancer” on the GOP. He’s right. As one anonymous Republican described Greene, “She is just batshit crazy.” Democrats know that, too. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has launched a media blitz in competitive GOP districts calling Greene the spokesperson for a QAnon conspiracy minded GOP. Pelosi charged McCarthy with a “failure to lead,” tagging him as a Q-CA member in a press release.
So, while Biden begins his presidency with a healthy 57 percent job approval rating, and his COVID-19 relief bill is winding its way to the Resolute Desk, Republicans remain mired in controversy, with a disgruntled minority seeking attention and finding it in ways that are detrimental to the party’s long-term prospects. The future of American politics is here.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America and author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”