For all the attention lavished on “destructionists” like Reps. Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert as they made McCarthy bow and plead for support, a larger group of Republicans broke out of the Fox News bubble and started showing up on CNN and even MSNBC. And not just the shrinking handful of moderates such as Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania who need to maintain support beyond the Republican base to keep getting elected. Hardcore conservatives showed up, too. Boebert herself consented to an interview on MSNBC.
According to CNN, more than 50 current and former Republican House members appeared on its airwaves during the last week of the McCarthy drama. That’s a striking turnaround from the Trump years, when the former president’s attacks on CNN as “fake news” led most Republicans to avoid it for the cozier confines of Fox News and Newsmax.
From what I’ve gathered speaking 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 at Mar-a-Lago has let other figures eclipse him, but because Republicans’ poor performance last November shattered his mystique. He doesn’t inspire the terror among Republican lawmakers that he once did.
Second, more House Republicans must answer to voters whose primary allegiance isn’t to Trump or even to the GOP. Eighteen Republicans won House seats in districts that voted for Biden in 2020 — twice the number in the last Congress. They know they’ll be running again two years from now with Biden likely on the ballot; they’ll need to win Democratic and moderate votes. So, with McCarthy’s speakership secure, a growing number of these Biden-district Republicans are turning on one of their own: Rep. George Santos of New York (whose district Biden carried 55% to 44%). In a world where Trump still ruled with an iron fist, Republicans might feel pressured to defend or at least ignore an absurd charlatan like Santos. Now, even Fox News feels comfortable lighting him up.
Third, many of their own voters profess to desire 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 Democrats.” While passing actual bipartisan legislation might be a stretch, showing up on CNN or MSNBC at least gives the appearance of reaching across the aisle.
Finally, the majority of the Republican House caucus that supports McCarthy without needing arm-twisting or personal phone calls from Trump understands that they must balance the chaos unleashed by the “Never Kevins” during the speaker fight with some semblance of normalcy that can win public support, since the next two years are going be a constant struggle for control of the caucus. Republican pollsters have been clear with their clients about the heavy drag Trump exerted on the party’s fortunes in the last election. Nothing about the calamity of the speaker’s race suggests that those problems are going to vanish. The only way for mainstream Republicans to maintain even a tenuous grip over the House is to isolate the extremists. And it’s hard to paint 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.
Anybody glued to cable news during the 15 rounds of voting it took to elect a speaker probably picked up on the culture shock that occurred when Republican House members ventured out into the mainstream media. Like travelers from a distant galaxy arriving on a new planet, their encounters didn’t always go smoothly. Texas Rep. Troy Nehls marveled on air at the fact of his appearing on the “Clinton News Network” and addressed CNN host Erin Burnett as “young lady,” which earned him a public scolding.
But overall, Republicans did an effective job of explaining their position and containing the insanity of the speaker’s race until McCarthy finally managed to limp across the finish line. It’s doubtful anyone will put Rachel Maddow’s producers on speed dial. But at least some Republicans appear to recognize that McCarthy’s fate — and their own — hinges on overcoming their hostility to the mainstream media and instead using it to beat back their extremist fringe.
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Joshua Green is a National Correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency.”
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