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Former congressman Davis reflects on government 'chaos' sowed by Gaetz

Rodney Davis speaking at news conference
Eric Stock
Former U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville is now a consultant and Harvard Fellow in the Kennedy School of Government.

A former central Illinois congressman is calling Florida congressman Matt Gaetz a narcissist who sowed chaos after Gaetz led the effort to unseat House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and warns the nation could face a government shutdown even after McCarthy sacrificed his speakership to avoid one.

Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, represented a district that included parts of Bloomington-Normal for a decade, ending in 2022. He's now a Washington, D.C. consultant and a fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Davis said he was in the capitol with McCarthy on Tuesday, when the former speaker was voted out of his position. 

“And it was surreal. I feel for him, I feel for all of us, who believed he was doing exactly what he said he was going to do, and which I believe was the best thing for the American people,” said Davis.

Davis said McCarthy is at peace because he knew when he made the deal for a 45-day continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown there was a chance a motion to vacate (the speakership) would succeed.

“I honestly believed that Democrats, especially Democratic members of the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus, would want to show the world they knew that governing was more important than politics. But I was disappointed,” said Davis.

That caucus is bipartisan and operates within the framework of offering a path to governance. Davis noted GOP members are upset with their Democratic colleagues, and have said they are considering abandoning the caucus.

Some Democrats have said they would not support McCarthy because he had gone back on his word related to a couple of deals made with the Biden administration, including spending limits. Others objected to McCarthy’s green-lighting an impeachment effort of President Bidenon what they contend are faulty grounds.

Davis did not directly answer a WGLT question whether he believes some Democrats would have voted with Republicans to save a speaker other than McCarthy.

"I served under four leaders and speakers … and there's not been a member of leadership that has been more transparent," said Davis. "He has had a more open process on how the floor operates in the House of Representatives. And there's not been one that has lived up to that that bipartisan working relationship more than Kevin McCarthy has."

Davis said it would have taken just a few Democrats who said they want to practice bipartisanship.

“Their problem with Kevin McCarthy is 100% politically based on their own self-preservation. They know Kevin McCarthy was the best Republican at raising money that can be used against Democrats in swing seats,” said Davis. “Matt Gaetz blowing up the process means you don't have a Republican speaker out there raising money to spend against them."

He also had other harsh words for Gaetz and predicted the Florida congressman could work to delay the selection of a new speaker beyond the expiration of the temporary funding resolution. That would trigger a government shutdown after all.

“Based upon the sheer self-narcissistic behavior for attention that congressman Gaetz wants to bring on himself, I think it could last much longer than 45 days. I hope I'm wrong. I hope he comes to his senses. But I don't see it right now, after the chaos I experienced,” said Davis.

He said most Republicans should be happy with McCarthy’s accomplishments.

“We cut spending by $2 trillion. As Republicans, we watched as energy permitting processes have been streamlined, things that Republicans have said they wanted. But people like Matt Gaetz don't know what they want except chaos. And that's exactly what he got. And that's exactly what the American people are experiencing,” said Davis.

Davis said he doesn't think it likely Democrats will intervene to shorten the GOP leadership struggle.

“The Democrats have shown they're putting their political calculus toward chaos and want chaos. Frankly, I gotta admit, we would probably want it if I was in the minority there. But in the end, Republicans have shown in the past that they're willing to break with our party and vote with the Democrats for common sense rules changes,” said Davis.

The path forward, he added, will be either a small cadre of bipartisan individuals who come to their senses, or a GOP consensus candidate “…that will be able to at least get enough votes, and maybe put Matt Gaetz on an island of one rather than an island of eight.”

He said the likely candidates to replace McCarthy are House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and Jim Jordan of Ohio who stepped down from leadership to chair the House Judiciary Committee. Jordan also chairs the far right Freedom Caucus. Other names out there include Jodey Arrington of Texas and Kevin Hern of Oklahoma. Davis predicted neither Scalise nor Jordan can get to the 218 votes needed to quickly win the speakership.

“And I think that's exactly what Matt Gaetz wants,” said Davis. “During a lack of speakership, when Congress is paralyzed, he will want to be known as somebody who helped spearhead the longest government shutdown. This is what I think the American people need to prepare for,” said Davis.

He said he hopes Democrats will find a way to vote for a rules package under a new speaker that would create a requirement for 10 members to make the motion to vacate instead of just one — that McCarthy agreed to when he became speaker in January.

At some point, Davis said, the chaos will ebb, the nation will exit a polarized environment, and move to the center as it did in the late 1960s and 1970s.

“At one end of the spectrum, Lyndon Johnson in the Great Society. Richard Nixon actually was a governing moderate-type president, but his own paranoia got in his way and caused that polarization,” said Davis.

The silent majority that Nixon spoke of still exists, said Davis, contending 98% of Americans do not use social media and are more concerned about their families and communities than about what happens in Washington. He said those people will have to stand up and call for a move to the center.

But it won’t be next year.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.