The Speaker Fight through the Eyes of Lauren Boebert
Lauren Boebert had an awesome week, and not many people in the House did.
Democrats, of course, had a pretty entertaining week, but it was a form of gallows humor as they entered minority party status. Boebert's fellow Republicans had a pretty embarrassing week for the most part. Kevin McCarthy did finally become Speaker early Saturday morning, but only after fourteen public humiliations, the last of which coming after he'd claimed he had the votes together. (Either he's not a good vote-counter or someone in his party lied to him, neither of which portend an impressive Speakership.) Many in the House Republican conference said horrible things about each other. Matt Gaetz held out opposition alongside Boebert, but he pushed it just a bit too far, to the point that McCarthy called him out on the floor and a colleague tried to take a swing at him.
By contrast, Boebert seemed to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. She switched her vote to "present" on the fourteenth ballot after voting for a host of other candidates and (unlike Gaetz) didn't draw particular attention to it -- she'd signaled that her position had softened and that McCarthy now had a path to the speakership.
This was after probably her biggest media week ever. She was interviewed extensively about her opposition to McCarthy on a host of news networks across the ideological spectrum, from Fox News to MSNBC. Yes, she occasionally got pilloried (even on Fox) but that's hardly new -- Boebert gets criticized a lot, often for absurd or offensive statements and tweets. But last week, she was all over the airwaves getting to make her case on camera.
It's not clear what she gained materially from her standoff with McCarthy. We don't yet know all the details of what he gave up to mollify his detractors and win a majority vote. It's also not clear whether there will be a net benefit for Boebert. Will McCarthy reward her for finally coming around, or punish her for her disloyalty? Will she find herself hurting for party money when she's up for reelection in 2024, or even facing a well funded primary challenger?
Chances are, McCarthy won't be doing much score-settling. Even if he'd been elected on the first ballot, he was destined to be a weak Speaker, with a very narrow and fractious majority that could abandon him at any moment. If he wants to pass anything of substance he'll need to keep pretty much everyone happy. He doesn't really have the tools or the leverage to mete out punishments.
McCarthy won't be doing much score-settling. He doesn't really have the tools or the leverage to mete out punishments.
But beyond that, it's useful to think about just what someone like Boebert actually wanted from this exchange. Did she want more open amendment rules or a different threshold for calling a Speaker vote or even a subcommittee chair position? Possibly, but those are mainly useful for passing legislation. There is little evidence that this is what motivates Boebert.
Rather, she wanted visibility. She wanted to be seen as someone her party could not take for granted and had to accommodate. Like her former colleague Madison Cawthorn, she is more focused on comms than legislation, and it was a good comms week.
It's interesting to note that this is her response to the near-death of her congressional career two months ago. Unlike the rest of her colleagues who held out against McCarthy, who represent deeply conservative districts, she only held her district by a few hundred votes. There was at least some speculation that she would respond with a pivot, making herself seem like a more serious and more moderate legislator and dispense with the bombast.
She went the other way. Possibly this is because she doesn't really have a different gear to shift into. But it's also quite reasonable for her to think that her close 2022 election was a fluke. In 2024, there will be a Republican presidential nominee on the ballot, ensuring higher Republican turnout across Colorado, whereas the Republican nominees for governor and US Senate last year weren't particularly strong draws. And judging from the history of her district, she likely is more concerned about drawing a strong primary challenger from the right than losing to a Democrat. (This is, after all, how she got there.) Her actions last week make such a primary challenge far less likely.
It's interesting to contrast the first week of this congressional session from where she was in the first week of the last session two years. She came into office cheering on and possibly abetting a coup attempt and had to spend the first week fighting off demands for her resignation. Yet support for the January 6th insurrection has clearly not proven to be a barrier to the Republican career ladder.
It'll be interesting to see how her fortunes fare relative to those of, say, Marjorie Taylor Greene. The two of them have similar ideological outlooks and personal styles in Congress, but Greene chose to align herself with McCarthy over the past two months, calculating that he was going to become Speaker and it was smarter to have been with him longer. That might be right, but it's also possible that Boebert got more out of her resistance than Greene got out of her collaboration. And Greene ended up with much less media attention this past week and even some accusations that she'd gone establishment. We'll know more in the near future about which one of them is better off, but the answer wasn't obvious ex ante.
But for the rest of this term, Speaker McCarthy is going to have to figure out ways to deal with Boebert and her allies. And as we saw over the past week, it's not that easy to mollify legislators who don't care much about legislation.