Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 11 April 2024


Opinion | Republicans Are Fleeing the Stench of a Rotten Congress

An illustration depicting the Capitol building with its dome ajar, as if on a hinge, and a ladder poking out of it. The background is orange.
Credit... Ben Hickey

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.

You’re reading the Frank Bruni newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  Reflections on the mess (and magic) of politics and life.

When it comes to Donald Trump, House Republicans do a convincing pantomime of love. Many of them chirpily parrot his lies. Most of them merrily launder his misdeeds. They grovel for his favor, gush about getting his endorsement and speak and vote in line with his desires.

They’re half partisan, half courtesan.

But there’s heartache underneath. Misery, even. That’s the truth of the Trump era, and that’s the moral of the 2024 exodus from Congress.

More than two dozen House Republicans, along with more than two dozen House Democrats, have headed or are headed for the exits, but the largeness of those numbers — which track with those in other election years over the past decade — don’t tell the story. What matters is who those Republicans are, the disgust in their goodbyes, their palpable sense of defeat and how it contradicts the fact that they have been in the majority in the chamber since early 2023.

In power, they have found themselves close to powerless. That’s the hellish paradox of their surrender to Trump.

For many of them individually, his blessing is the best or only way to maintain support among their Republican constituents back home and win election. But for the lot of them, he’s a curse, because he has contributed mightily to a degrading and dysfunctional culture on Capitol Hill.

Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz and other banes of a serious, half-serious or even quarter-serious Republican lawmaker’s existence are Trump’s spiritual spawn. He begot their antics. He nurtured their rage. If being a House Republican has become unbearable, he bears critical responsibility for that.

The Trump giveth, and the Trump taketh away.

Five of the Republicans who decided to escape the Hill’s poisonous climate didn’t or won’t even wait until the end of this year and finish out their terms. They can’t flee fast enough.

Among them is Representative Ken Buck, a Colorado Republican. “This place just keeps going downhill,” he told reporters, “and I don’t need to spend my time here.” You say that kind of thing about a rundown bar where there’s no eradicating the stench of spilled beer. He was talking about a broken-down institution that reeks of abandoned principles.

It’s losing longtime Republican leaders estranged from and spurned by greener, meaner MAGA hellions. Kevin McCarthy, who was the House speaker for less than 10 months last year, has already resigned and is gone. Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who served as a temporary speaker after McCarthy, won’t seek re-election.

They carry the scars of a scabrous 2023. Such was the Republican infighting that McCarthy’s ascent to House speaker required an unprecedented 15 roll call votes — and then he was ousted after the third-shortest speakership in history.

In a profoundly depressing analysis in The Times, Carl Hulse called 2023 “one of the most tumultuous and unproductive legislative years in recent memory.” Vital bills languished. Bedlam prevailed. Representative Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican, said that McCarthy had purposely elbowed him in the kidney. “And then I chased after him,” he proudly reported. Zygotes behave more maturely.

“It was historical and hysterical,” Representative Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican, said at the time. McHenry called it “a very actively stupid political environment.”

Now, its fruits. “Four G.O.P. committee chairs are leaving,” Marianna Sotomayor wrote in a roll call of the Republican refugees in The Washington Post last weekend. “Eight lawmakers are retiring from the coveted Energy and Commerce Committee, and eight subcommittee chairs are leaving.”

Sotomayor quoted Buck as saying: “The populist wave has eroded the conservative values that I had when I came to this place. Now, we’re impeaching people like it’s some kind of carnival, and the Constitution is just a thing of the past to the very same people who were tea party patriots 10 to 12 years ago.”

A carnival ethos. Contempt for the Constitution. Call to mind any former president you know?

In terms of the Republican Party’s devolution over the past dozen years, there can be genuine debate: Which came first, the tempest or the Trump? But it’s indisputable that he worsened the weather. Perhaps he swept in on storm clouds already formed. But only then came the lightning.

And now they seek shelter — McCarthy, McHenry, Buck and so many more. They weren’t built for the apocalypse. They should have done more to head it off.

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