So much for "small government": Budget fight reveals GOP main issue is culture war

Speaker Mike Johnson ushers in a new GOP era where "spending cuts" have given way to far-right obsessions

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 17, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Kevin McCarthy and Mike Johnson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Kevin McCarthy and Mike Johnson (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., ascended to his new role as speaker of the House, word among the punditry's smart set was that he faced the same uphill battle as the last Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California. McCarthy had to suffer through 15 ballots to get elected last January, and had held the gavel for just nine months when he decided to pass a short-term funding bill in September, avoiding a government shutdown through a compromise that won some Democratic votes. To McCarthy's Republican opponents, this was supposedly an outrageous offense against "conservative" values, and an intra-GOP coup spearheaded by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida led to his ouster as speaker within days. Johnson, who only got the job after weeks of GOP infighting — and three other failed candidates! — faced the same challenge: Keeping the government open with a slim Republican majority so deeply at odds with each other they keep getting into physical altercations. So he did the exactly same thing McCarthy did: He passed a short-term spending bill with Democratic votes — in fact, mostly with Democratic votes. 

But while there's been plenty of performative bellyaching from some Republicans who voted against the bill — and 93 GOP members did so — there's a sense that Johnson can probably avoid McCarthy's fate. That's true even though, as Georgetown political scientist Matt Glassman told Politico, traditional Republican priorities got dumped: "You don’t see any spending cuts, you don’t see any policy riders." In fact, Glassman called this a "clean" spending bill that resembled those "written by Democratic majorities" in previous sessions. 

In other words, McCarthy and Johnson did exactly the same thing, pushing through a bipartisan bill that supposedly offends "fiscal conservatives." Yet only McCarthy went to the guillotine, metaphorically speaking, for doing that. Theories abound as to why things played out that way: "exhaustion" among Republicans, a desire to get out of Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday, a lack of personal animosity toward Johnson. 

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I would offer an alternative explanation: This whole episode signals the death knell of a venerable conservative totem, the supposed commitment to "small government." Sure, they're still for cutting spending (mostly on social programs that might benefit poor and nonwhite people), but it's not a pressing concern the way it used to be. This is wholly and entirely Donald Trump's party now, which means it's primarily focused on MAGA-fied whining about culture-war grievances. Republicans no longer have the bandwidth to give a hoot about old-school Republican concerns like cutting the budget. 

Kevin McCarthy came straight out of the playbook of traditional Republican leaders. He was fine happy backing the culture warriors on their pet issues, from banning abortion to denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election. But his fellow Republicans correctly perceived that all that was just box-checking to achieve power and do what he really wanted, which was to enact the low-tax, deregulated environment his corporate benefactors desire. 

Mike Johnson, on the other hand, comes straight out of the deepest swamps of fervent Christian fundamentalism. He built his career attacking reproductive rights and promoting the idea that dinosaurs got a ride on Noah's ark. The GOP pivot from McCarthy to Johnson marks a real shift in power and focus within the party, from the corporate-friendly Chamber of Commerce wing to the folks whose true cause is turning the U.S. into a Christian nationalist state. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., laid this out clearly on Steve Bannon's podcast after Johnson's election, saying it showed that "MAGA is ascendant" and that Johnson's victory illustrates "where the power of the Republican Party truly lies." Gaetz is a self-promoting jackass, but he's not entirely stupid and he's definitely not wrong. In truth, for decades now most Republican voters have not been much interested in the "small government" ideology left over from Ronald Reagan. They like the GOP because it panders to their bigotry, and often to their incoherent conspiracy theories. And they're getting sick of playing second fiddle to the economic hawks, when in fact the culture warriors are now the Republican majority. 

For decades now, most Republican voters haven't been much interested in the "small government" ideology left over from Ronald Reagan. They like the GOP because it panders to their bigotry and their incoherent conspiracy theories.

For decades, the party's business wing was able to maintain power by selling their economic ideas as a way for the base to stick it to people they don't like. Cutting social spending, for instance, was packaged with highly unsubtle racist propaganda about "welfare queens." Deregulation was promoted by demonizing environmentalists as a bunch of tree-hugging hippies and latte-sipping elitists. But with Trump out there promising to "root out" the "vermin" and the Supreme Court ending abortion rights, the Republican base has lost interest in these roundabout, bureaucratic ways of hurting the people they hate. Why hit your perceived foes in the wallet when you can take a hammer to their kneecaps? 

The GOP's decades-long fixation with forcing government shutdowns has been rooted in its alleged economic conservatism. The idea was basically a form of hostage-taking, creating one damaging crisis after another in order to force Democrats to agree to deep spending cuts. The ingrained assumption was that because Republicans hold all kinds of hostile ideas about government, they wouldn't be much bothered if it stopped functioning for weeks or months. Democrats, according to this theory, would ultimately pay any ransom demanded to open their beloved bureaucracies back up. This never worked as intended — all the way back to Bill Clinton, Democrats learned not to give in — but such was the power of the anti-government wing of the GOP that they kept on trying. 

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These days, there's little doubt that shutting down the government is bad politics. It hurts Republicans with swing voters, but it's not all that great with their base voters either. MAGA voters don't care about that stuff; they want to hear about immigrants being deported, feminists crying and trans people being grotesquely punished for being who they are. All this talk about shutting down government to force spending cuts is boring. Furthermore, lots of people in the MAGA demographic rely on government support in various ways, and don't love it when Republicans threaten to take their Medicaid, Social Security and disability checks away. 

I suspect Johnson dodged a government shutdown because he really is, as Gaetz put it, "MAGA Mike." The endless and mostly fruitless battles to force Democrats into budget cuts aren't Johnson's motivation for getting out of bed in the morning. Sure, he claims to want the same spending cuts that Republicans always want. But his heart's not in it, and he's happier dragging the topic back to his personal priority: forcing his rigid religious beliefs on everyone else. He has actually argued, for instance, that a national abortion ban would soon produce enough "able-bodied workers" to "cover the bases of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid."

That quote got a lot of attention for its cruelty and misogyny, but let's note that it also signals a shift away from rejecting social spending on grounds of fiscal or ideological purity. On the contrary, he's claiming that Republicans would be all for robust social spending if, gosh darn it, the ladies would just agree to settle down and have more babies. He's almost certainly lying about that, of course, but this rhetorical flimflam is still quite revealing. Johnson and his base aren't much invested in "small government" as a sacred concept. If anything, he's using the (likely false) promise of increased social spending as a way to justify what he really wants, which is a theocratic state where abortion is illegal everywhere.

It's not that Republicans have entirely given up on slashing taxes and spending. If they regain control over the Senate and the White House next year, we can certainly expect more tax cuts for the rich and further slashing of social programs ordinary people rely on. But by electing a House speaker who is a culture warrior first and a "small government" ideologue second (if at all), Republicans have signaled an important shift in priorities. They're not much interested in investing political capital in widely unpopular government shutdowns. Their energies are shifting towards the cultural preoccupations of the MAGA base: Banning abortion, gutting LGBTQ rights, undermining racial equality, and generally seeking revenge against disadvantaged groups, liberals and people who went to college. The switch from McCarthy to Johnson was never about the budget fight. It was about MAGA's final conquest of the Republican Party.  

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Budget Commentary Culture War Far-right Government Shutdown Kevin Mccarthy Maga Mike Johnson Republicans