Jordan, McCarthy and Trump: A Love Triangle
President Trump is enjoying a fantasy he’s dubbed the “Red Wave,” while threatening to shut down the government days before the midterm elections. Throw in a trade war and it’s more than a headache for congressional Republicans facing steep headwinds on Nov. 6.
But wait, there’s more. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio is running for speaker of the House. While most people know Jordan, co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, can’t win the 218 votes required, his candidacy alone could endanger the GOP majority -- with Trump’s help. It’s all a publicity stunt, but that’s the problem. President Trump loves publicity stunts and he is awfully fond of Jordan.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy remains one of the members closest to Trump, and is the all-but-official successor to retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump even wanted to endorse him back in April, but advisers talked him out of it. Then came the challenge from one of the president’s Favorite Fire Breathers. Trump’s wish -- to shut the government down over border wall funding -- is Jordan’s command.
According to an interview Jordan gave to Conservative Review, he wants to fight, not fold, on controversial votes, including on funding a wall. And while Jordan, like McCarthy, has said the speaker's race doesn’t begin until after the election, the Ohio congressman thinks it’s “critical” Republicans start these politically risky confrontations now, not after the election. “Do we want to nationalize this election and fire up Republican and Trump voters to come out and vote for us? Then we better not kick the can past the elections, we better actually do the things we said we were going to do.”
Last weekend, at the president’s rally for Troy Balderson’s campaign in Ohio’s special election, things couldn’t have gone better for Jordan. The crowd chanted “Speaker of the House” while Trump warmly embraced the native son, complimenting his toughness. “What a great defender he’s been, what courage,” Trump said. “He’s a brave, tough cookie, along with some of his friends.” After the rally, Richard Viguerie’s Conservative HQ website published a piece titled: “Trump Gets the Message: Conservative Grassroots Demand Speaker Jordan.” It stated: “no voter in their right mind -- and the conservative voters the GOP needs to win are more attuned than ever as to who has been a part of the Paul Ryan legacy of betrayals, lies, and failures -- is going to vote for that record.” The publication urged candidates running for Congress to call Jordan and ask him to campaign for them, listing his office number and encouraging candidates to run on his #DoWhatWeSaid agenda.
Meanwhile GOP leaders, including McCarthy, are continuing to urge the president to hold off on shutting the government down until after Nov. 6. A worst case scenario is a short-term funding bill that expires after the election.
But, of course, barring a Red Wave that maintains or increases their majority, Republicans will be looking at fewer seats on Nov. 7, and may wake up as the minority-in-waiting. Defeated members may join a postmortem, blaming Trump’s unpopularity for losing their swing seats, and not feeling eager to vote for a wall, let alone shut the government down. Democrats will either be feeling their own pain from coming close but not enough, or will be triumphantly measuring the drapes, and not voting for the wall then either.
Knowing this, how hard will Jordan try to persuade Trump he’s being punked by McCarthy and Ryan? How easily can Jordan sway Trump so he digs in for a shutdown? McCarthy is all too familiar -- in detail -- with how the Freedom Caucus helped force former House Speaker John Boehner into retirement in 2015 and how its members have dogged Ryan during his entire tenure. They used to just vote “no” but now they can also triangulate with Trump to make sure McCarthy’s speakership is as awful as that of his two predecessors.
Jordan announced his challenge to McCarthy right after a scandal exploded over his alleged role in a decades-old sexual abuse scandal at Ohio State University. Accused by former students of brushing aside accounts of abuse when he was a wrestling coach, Jordan has denied the allegations and said, “I’ve talked to all kinds of my colleagues; they can see through that story.”
Trump came to Jordan’s defense immediately, saying: “Jim Jordan is one of the most outstanding people I’ve met since I’ve been in Washington. I believe him 100 percent. No question in my mind.”
Michael Steel, Boehner’s former spokesman, called Jordan’s gambit “a huge mistake.” Since, Steel said, historically the party controlling the White House and the Congress loses an average of 32 midterm seats, any election where they maintain their majority would be considered a victory. “They will have pulled off a historic upset in a sense to maintain that and Kevin McCarthy is going to get a huge amount of credit for the fact that that was successful,” Steel said last week on the Michael Smerconish program on Sirius XM’s POTUS Channel. “So people will be looking to Mr. McCarthy as a unifying figure who enjoys the trust and confidence and affection of the president and someone who had beaten the odds and helped defy history.”
The question isn’t what happens after Election Day, but before it. There’s a good chance Trump doesn’t appreciate the nuances and dynamics of leadership races and internecine battles. Advisers to the president will likely try and counsel him -- even if he has already decided he will ultimately support McCarthy -- to avoid overtures to Jordan that complicate McCarthy’s path.
But Jordan effectively stokes the anti-establishment anger he knows helped make Trump president. He’s crediting Trump’s agenda and his leadership as he bashes the current leadership -- and all of it is flattering to Trump. Backing Trump on the shutdown will bring Jordan just the attention he seeks. And he knows just how much Trump is drawn to the drama and the fight.
To give Republicans their best shot on Nov. 6, the president needs to tamp this thing down now, prevail upon Jordan to stay on the team, and keep Republicans united until voters go to the polls. They should pass a spending bill on time, as is their constitutional duty, that the president signs without any criticism that Democrats would celebrate. Given Trump’s track record, none of this is likely.