Matt Gaetz Is What Happens When Politicians Value Attention Over Support
By Philip Elliott
Washington Correspondent, TIME

Matt Gaetz Is What Happens When Politicians Value Attention Over Support

Every few years, one lawmaker on Capitol Hill captures the collective exasperation of colleagues. Even the mere mention of them draws dramatic sighs, blinding eye rolls, guttural grunts. For that window of time, most lawmakers recognize this person as the chair of the You Can’t Sit With Us caucus, a position earned almost entirely through their utter lack of shame, and their tendency to act like a petulant teen who has lost screen privileges for the weekend.

At the moment, that seething adolescent is Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who moved Monday evening to launch a vote to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and says he is prepared to take as many shots as needed to depose him. Gaetz is working to rally fellow conservatives against McCarthy’s hold on the gavel days after the Speaker struck a deal with Democrats to keep the government running for another six weeks. That effort at the bare minimum of governance runs afoul of what Gaetz and Co. wanted to see in their party leader and, in their telling, betrays private concessions McCarthy made back in January over more than a dozen rounds of balloting to get perhaps the worst job in Washington.

Gaetz’s is a stunt of the first order, but it could end up debilitating the House at the exact moment the nation needs it to keep the lights on. Polling shows Republicans already primed to be blamed if there were a government shutdown, and such high-wire brinksmanship only gives credence to Democrats’ argument that the GOP can’t be trusted with even the most basic kindling for fear they might burn down the government.

Most lawmakers, including many in the far-right Freedom Caucus, have had it with Gaetz. Whereas they once excused his antics, most are now just dismissing him as a show horse more interested in booking TV hits than passing legislation. “Charlatan” and “fraud” have been bandied around without reservation. “A smart guy without morals” was the savage assessment of one lawmaker. Even Gaetz’s normal enablers are growing weary of the headlines generated without regard for what the second-day story might look like.

Lawmakers left, right, and center all think the grudge match between Gaetz and McCarthy is one rooted in personalities, not governing priorities. Gaetz and his shrinking band of loyalists believe—without evidence—that McCarthy allowed a House Ethics Committee investigation into Gaetz to go too far and too long; the Justice Department wrapped up its investigation of Gaetz’s alleged ties to a sex trafficking probe without criminal charges, although the House ethics panel is continuing. McCarthy has said he has nothing to do with the ethics investigation, but Gaetz sees McCarthy’s vindictiveness at every turn and is already making moves to run for Florida governor in 2026. (The feud is also good to build a national network after a first try fizzled after Gaetz split with another troublemaker, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.) The dispute has yielded a dangerous blend of hyper-paranoia and spite. In one meeting last week, a lawmaker told Gaetz to “f— off” after he again leveled unproven allegations of McCarthy’s stealth hand against him.

Gaetz doesn’t seem to mind the backlash. The point of such performance art is to get eyeballs. Gaetz can read the room as well as everyone else around him. He likely understands his support is evaporating in real time. Gaetz isn’t making a play for the speakership himself; his strengths are in drumming up headlines and campaign cash, not governance. After all, this is a figure who voted for Covid-19 funding while wearing a gas mask, blocked McCarthy from becoming Speaker on the 14th round of balloting by casting a vote as present, and finds ways to inject culture-war drama into hearings about funding for Ukraine, and seemingly everywhere else he can.

As for McCarthy, his speakership is no longer in the hands of his own party. If Democrats stay united and vote to ditch McCarthy, there’s no saving him, as Gaetz has more than the five Republicans he needs to sink the Speaker on an otherwise partisan vote. Some progressives have vowed not to bail out McCarthy, although Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries hasn’t shown his hand just yet. Democratic Whip Katherine Clark told colleagues they would be having a conversation about how the party should vote if a motion to depose McCarthy reaches the floor. In short: Democrats may end up with a huge say in picking the Republican who would run the House, much as they locked arms with McCarthy late Saturday to keep Washington open and running.

Such a move is absolutely afield from the stated goals of Gaetz. But maybe that’s the whole point. Gaetz has long given up the game that he’s pushing a conservative agenda and standing in the breach against big-spending Democrats. In a city known for its egos and enmity toward compromise, the fact that a four-term lawmaker from Florida’s Redneck Riviera can stand out so dramatically says a lot about how unbending and shameless he has become. Right now, no one in Washington can stand Gaetz. And Gaetz would have it no other way.

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