If Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made anything clear yesterday, it was this: If he's elected majority leader, which by all historical trends and current polling is a strong likelihood, he intends to retaliate against Democrats. Specifically, during the House debate over whether to censure Rep. Paul Gosar, along with stripping him of committee assignments (just as they had Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for her apparent support of violence against Democrats), McCarthy read off a list of Democrats who have offended Republicans and warned that they all might soon be serving under rules of a GOP-led Congress.
McCarthy wasn't interested in the arguments made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose neck was shown being slashed by Gosar in the anime video he posted. Both Democrats, along with many others, had urged the House to unite around the idea that fomenting and threatening violence should never be tolerated by either party. (In a darkly dystopian manner, Rep. Gosar's video also celebrated migrants of color being corralled by the U.S. border patrol in a dehumanizing manner.)
"Threatening and showing the killing of a member of this House. Can't that appall you?" asked House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, staring over at his GOP colleagues on the other side of the aisle. "Do you have no shame?"
The minority leader may indeed have no shame, but he does know that his own caucus is populated with many members who support, at least privately, the use of force to hold on to political power. He also knows that depicting Democrats and Speaker Pelosi as eagerly abusive of their power—through two impeachment hearings, removal of his handpicked members on the original January 6 Bipartisan Committee, and two votes to rebuke and strip Republicans of their committee assignments—scores points with the MAGA base and plays into the narrative that Republicans are the victims of leftist, authoritarian leaders.
Assuming McCarthy does become Majority Leader through a combination of extreme gerrymandering and continued weak poll numbers for the president and his party, what will that mean in real terms for Democrats? For starters, the GOP likely will go after a few key, much-despised progressives including Rep. Maxine Waters, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Eric Swalwell, and Rep. Adam Schiff, who all have been outspoken in their condemnations of the racism, hypocrisy, and growing support for violence within the GOP. The sole point will be to flex political muscle and delight the base with the prospect and fruits of revenge.
Rep. Waters, for example, had urged demonstrators during the Derek Chauvin protests to "get more confrontational" with authorities, a statement which the right depicted inaccurately as a call to violence. (Waters has always urged peaceful demonstration.) McCarthy singled Waters out as an example of "rules for thee, not for me" despite the clear difference between her words and Gosar's video.
Rep. Omar has at times been outspoken on Palestine and faced internal rebukes from Democratic leadership on tweets viewed by many as anti-Semitic, a result she says she did not intend and for which she publicly apologized. But unlike Reps. Gosar or Greene, Rep. Omar's rhetoric never included calls for violence, while much of the vitriol directed her way by the GOP is demonstrably anti-Muslim. (Rep. Lauren Boebert, for example, referred to the "Jihad Squad" yesterday during her speech.)
Rep. Swalwell is accused of having met and dated a Chinese woman eight years ago who is suspected of being a spy attempting to gain access to political power— a story that the GOP and right-wing media pounced upon even in the absence of any evidence of actual intelligence breaches or damage. (Swalwell immediately cut all ties to her six years ago after being informed by the FBI of her likely ties to Chinese intelligence.)
Rep. Adam Schiff who led the first Trump impeachment hearings in the House, is also a favorite target of Republican ire and could face a barrage of calls to strip him of his powers. Such a move would of course be nothing but raw political retribution, but after years of endless Benghazi hearings against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we should expect nothing less.
None of these issues rises to the level of violence winked at by Rep. Greene or openly espoused by Rep. Gosar, a distinction Democrats continue to emphasize, especially in the wake of a violent attack on the Capitol that may have even gained assistance internally from congressmembers such as Reps. Gosar, Greene and Boebert. "Death threats against a member of Congress and a president of the United States in an animated video does not make those death threats any less real or less serious," Pelosi said on the floor. "This is an insult to the institution of the House of Representatives," she added. "It is not just about us as members of Congress, it is a danger that represents to everyone in the country."
Yet Republicans view the quick disciplinary moves by Democrats not as a strong stand against political violence but rather a cynical effort to silence conservative voices by accusing them of promoting violence. While the parties disagree over whether the video was a dangerous call for violence or merely an exercise in free speech, Republicans clearly are now out for retribution, and we can expect that they will take it as soon as they are back in power.
It should be noted that, historically, the last time a congressmember was officially censured was ten years ago, when Rep. Charles Rangel of New York stood accused of massive self-dealing, tax evasion and abuse of power. As the New York Times notes, the move to censure Rep. Rangel gained widespread support among Democrats and passed by an overwhelming vote at the time, with then Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reading out the rebuke in person. Today, by contrast, the Minority Leader sought to protect Gosar and "both-sides" the argument. Only two Republicans—Rep. Liz Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, both of whom serve on the House Select Committee on January 6—voted in favor of the censure.
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