McCarthy & McConnell: The Relevance of Institutions

This morning’s blockbuster N.Y. Times story by Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin, based on their forthcoming book, raises the question whether Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell would have felt able to act on their immediate instincts after January 6–to end Trump’s political career–if the electoral institutions in which they (and party competition) operated were different. Simply put, if Alaska’s new system were nationwide, what would have been the different electoral incentives that GOP members of Congress operated in, including their relationship to their “base” voters? (See especially the quote from Ohio’s Bill Johnson in the story, that the “base” would “go ballistic” if GOP leadership crossed Trump.) What would be the electoral power of these “base” voters in an Alaska-style system, compared to the electoral power of the base in the current system (in which a plurality-winner general election follows a traditional partisan primary)?

In considering how to react to this news that McCarthy and McConnell backed off their initial instincts, it’s worth keeping in mind the institutional context in which they were operating. Thus, if the goal is to protect the United States from a dangerous politician like Trump, which McCarthy and McConnell initially wanted to do (according to this story), then the lesson here is that there needs to be the kind of structural institutional reform that enables political leaders like McCarthy and McConnell to act on those instincts, rather than to succumb to the countervailing forces of “base” pressure (which results from the existing institutional arrangement).

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