In his Friday night Oval Office speech announcing the debt ceiling deal, President Joe Biden was magnanimous to Speaker Kevin McCarthy, calling him "straightforward," "honest" and "respectful." Earlier in the week, McCarthy praised the professionalism of the White House negotiating team, saying that "we have respect for one another."
That moment of bonhomie was short lived, however. Just after the deal was announced, allies for Biden and McCarthy released ads claiming victory for their side. "When MAGA Republicans threatened to wreck the economy," an ad by the DNC said, "President Biden took charge. He secured a bipartisan deal, prevented chaos and protected Social Security and Medicare."
An ad released by the American Action Network, McCarthy's de facto campaign arm, took shots at both House liberals and the president: "Why are liberals so angry? Because Speaker McCarthy and the House rolled Biden."
However, the real winners of a debt deal were vulnerable House Republicans who sit in blue or blue-leaning districts. It is going to be hard enough for many of these incumbents to outrun former President Donald Trump, the likely GOP nominee, in 2024. They also can't afford to be burdened with a Republican-led Congress that is defined by chaos and calamity.
After watching the tumultuous and tortuous fight for speaker earlier this year, plenty of folks were convinced that the House GOP conference was unmanageable. With just five votes to spare and a restive wing of anti-establishment rabble rousers, McCarthy had no room for error and even less room for compromise.
McCarthy would also have to contend with the fact that the former president continues to hold much more sway over his members than he does. It didn't help McCarthy that Trump, in an early May CNN town hall event, encouraged House Republicans to default on the debt if Democrats "don't give you massive cuts."
An ad released by the Democratic-backed group Future Forward in mid-May led with Trump's default quote, arguing that he was "pushing an extreme agenda to slash the basics we depend on." The ad ended with a photo of McCarthy and his GOP colleagues standing around him, and said "with so much on the line, now is their [House Republicans] chance to finally stand up to Trump's chaos."
The League of Conservation Voters targeted two Republicans sitting in Biden-won seats with a similar MAGA-oriented message. "Don Bacon [R-NE-02] and MAGA extremists," said the ad, "are on a mission to protect big corporations…and drive America into default, causing our economy to collapse."
These groups didn't put all that much money into these TV ads. According to campaign ad tracking firm AdImpact, outside Democratic groups spent about $1.7 million between early May and early June. They are worth mentioning, however, because they show just how important linking Trump and" MAGA extremism" with House Republicans is to Democrats' 2024 strategy.
Trump, however, took little interest in the debt ceiling fight. This allowed McCarthy and his team to build a bipartisan coalition without fear of Trump ultimately undercutting a final deal. Vulnerable House Republicans could do the very thing Democratic ads dared them to do: show independence from Trump.In fact, every single Republican incumbent listed as TossUp or Lean Republican in our House Race Ratings Chart ultimately supported the debt ceiling deal.
To be sure, there are plenty of land mines still out there for McCarthy and vulnerable Republicans. Just this week, members of the Freedom Caucus, unhappy with the debt ceiling deal, were able to grind the House to a halt. But the most existential threat for the most vulnerable members — a default-induced economic disaster — has been avoided.
Since 2018, Democrats have successfully leveraged fears about Trump to victory in swing districts and states. But they also got a lot of help from those GOP candidates themselves. Many of them not only embraced the former president, but they took positions on issues like abortion, the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack and election integrity that were far outside the mainstream. Trying to link a Republican who doesn't look, act, sound or vote like Trump with MAGA will be more challenging.
Image credit: Alamy
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