October 5, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Democrats were entitled to punish bad Republican behavior

They have saved the Republicans from themselves for long enough.

via Wikipedia.
via Wikipedia.

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The story about the historic tossing of the House speaker continues to develop with a new chapter about what the Democrats were supposed to have done about the Republicans’ unwillingness to govern, and the Republicans’ apparent retaliation for their failing to have done it.

The punishment comes from temporary Speaker of the House Patrick McHenry, who on Wednesday ordered Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker, and Steny Hoyer, the current Democratic whip, to vacate their offices at the Capitol. He gave them a whole day. Top Democrats are contesting McHenry’s authority to order any such thing. In any case, we can expect this and other kinds of petty revenge in the future.

Why are the Republicans upset? One idea is that the Democrats should have stayed out of the Republican conference’s business of deciding the fate of their leader. That idea has some credence but only some. It’s less persuasive when you consider how hard it is to imagine the Republicans staying out of the Democrats’ business if a handful of Democrats were trying to knock off their leader. It’s hard to imagine because, well, look at how petty the Republicans are being right now.

Not only were the Democrats not obligated to save the Republicans from themselves. The Democrats were entitled to punishing their bad behavior when the opportunity for and means of punishment arose. That’s what happened. 

What happened was a handful of Republican insurgents, led by Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, decided it was time for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to go. McCarthy had relied on the Democrats to keep the government open last weekend. That was enough to file a motion to vacate the chair, a rule McCarthy agreed to in order to become speaker. All but 11 Republicans wanted him to stay on the job. But nearly all the Democrats joined those 11 insurgents. Now McCarthy’s gone. He’s the first speaker in American history to be voted out.

The other idea is more persuasive, though. That’s that the Democrats are the party of competence, leadership, order and governance while the Republicans are free to indulge their very worst instincts. This is universally understood in Washington, perhaps only subliminally, as everyone, including the neutral press, continuously looks to the Democrats to clean up whenever the Republicans use their power to inevitably manufacture emergencies that urgently need cleaning up.

For more than a decade, the Republicans have been able to trust that the Democrats would do just that. They’ve been able to trust that the Democrats would feel pressure from the neutral press during times of crisis to put the country above the party. During this period, there has been an unspoken but well-understood sense that the Democrats are obligated to reestablish order whenever the Republicans’ infighting became so intense and chaotic that their majority was paralyzed.

We are seeing this unspoken but well-understood sense coming to the fore in discussions about what’s next. The House has until Nov. 17 to produce legislation that would fund the government for the next year. During that time, it must decide whether to include more funding for Ukraine’s war, which is highly contentious because many Republicans see that country as a proxy fight over control of the White House. The pressure was already on. Now the House must spend precious time choosing a new speaker. Some say that the Democrats would have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had saved Kevin McCarthy.


That seems reasonable, but it’s unreasonable when you consider what would have been the outcome of saving McCarthy. The Republicans would not feel the consequences of indulging their very worst instincts. Because they would not have felt them, they would not have changed their bad behavior. They would have continued “the MAGA mania” that they’ve “fed for so long,” wrote the Post’s Greg Sargent. “The House GOP’s lack of a functional majority shouldn’t be the Democratic Party’s political problem to solve, no matter how many petty punishments Republicans dole out to Democrats along the way.”

I would take this another step, though. Not only were the Democrats not obligated to save the Republicans from themselves. The Democrats were entitled to punishing their bad behavior when the opportunity for and means of punishment arose. That’s what happened this week.

They had a chance to punish McCarthy for dicking around with the insurgents for so long, risking a government shutdown that most of his own conference did not want. The Democrats had the means, because McCarthy gave it to them when he agreed to a rule saying that one member can file a motion to vacate the chair. (The Democrats, by the way, voted against that rule. The Republican majority OK’d it.) 

By voting to boot McCarthy, some say the Democrats are now just as bad as the Republicans. They failed to put the interests of the country above those of the party. That take is upside down. We know the Republicans won’t break their own fever unless they suffer the consequences of it. The Democrats made them suffer a little. 

That’s in the country’s interest.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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