On a Friday night in January, Representative Matt Gaetz — chief bomb thrower of the Republican right — appeared on Fox News in a gray suit and self-satisfied grin.
The Florida congressman and a handful of likeminded hard-liners had been tormenting fellow Republican Kevin McCarthy for days — denying him the House speakership in a string of humiliating public votes and pestering him with a series of escalating demands.
Now, Gaetz crowed to Fox host Sean Hannity, he was on the verge of getting everything he wanted. “I am grateful that Speaker-designate McCarthy has been so receptive to each and every change that we have demanded,” he said.
“And Sean,” he added, to laughter, “we’re at the stage right now where I’m running out of stuff to ask for.”
It was a very Gaetzian troll.
But it was also an object lesson in how to exercise power in a GOP narrowly clinging to its House majority: Use your leverage in a party that can’t afford defections; make maximal demands.
Months after putting a weakened McCarthy in the speaker’s chair, Gaetz’s gang took their confrontational tactics to a new level — theatrically ousting him from power when he refused to do their bidding.
The far right, it seemed, was the only bloc that had mastered the moment.
But this week, something changed.
A group of moderates and institutionalists — factions known for buckling to the party’s Trumpian right — pushed back, refusing to back ultraconservative Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio for speaker, even in the face of an intense right-wing pressure campaign. Members were targeted on social media. Their offices were flooded with phone calls. One holdout’s wife started sleeping with a loaded gun after a torrent of intimidating texts and phone calls.
Sarah Longwell, a Washington communications consultant and central figure in the conservative Never Trump movement, said the resistance is heartening. “Moderates throughout the Trump era — either they’ve caved or they’ve lost their jobs,” she told Globe Ideas. “It’s nice to see several of what’s left of the moderates . . . hold firm.”
But if blocking an election denier from running the House of Representatives is necessary, Longwell emphasized, it’s not sufficient.
In the long term, if the country wants a functioning democracy, it needs the center-right to get bolder still — to take unprecedented steps to build an enduring bipartisanship.
That, she said, is the real opportunity presented by the ongoing speaker’s fight.
The unthinkable becomes possible
From the start of that fight, there have been glimmers of a transformative shift in Washington politics.
When McCarthy was teetering, mainstream Republicans and Democrats in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus held talks about a power-sharing agreement — a cross-party collaboration that would have been unthinkable even weeks before.
Those talks ultimately crumbled.
But Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader in the House, made it clear in an Oct. 6 opinion piece in The Washington Post that he was still very much open to a deal.
And a week later, a prominent House Republican — Armed Services Committee chairman Mike Rogers — floated the possibility of bipartisan governance, too.
One of the ideas that has circulated is equal representation on the powerful Rules Committee, which determines what legislation gets to the House floor for a vote.
Republicans currently have a supermajority on the panel — including three hard-right members who won their seats as part of the agreement to back former speaker McCarthy in January. The result has been a stranglehold on bipartisan legislation.
Another concession the ultraconservatives wrested from McCarthy allows a single member of the House to call for the removal of the speaker. A deal with Democrats would likely spike that rule, lending a degree of stability to any new power-sharing agreement.
Such an agreement could not, alone, drain the enmity out of American politics. But by clearing the way for more bipartisan dealmaking, it would significantly change the way Washington works.
With the far right no longer holding the House hostage, government shutdowns would be less likely. And Congress would be in a much better position to respond to crises like the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.
There are plenty of Washington hands who doubt, even after the developments of recent days, that a bipartisan governing structure is possible.
But other veterans of national politics are more sanguine.
“I think there’s an opportunity for that to happen, I really do,” said Fred Upton, a Republican who represented Michigan in Congress for 26 years before retiring earlier this year.
It’s the only way to make the House a functional body, he told Ideas.
There are, in fact, some even more jarring possibilities.
The Welcome PAC, a center-left group with roots in Greater Boston, has been pressing Republicans who represent districts won by Joe Biden in 2020 to switch parties.
Alternatively, says Longwell, the Never Trumper, some mainstream Republicans could leave the party and become independents aligned with Congressional Democrats.
They’d have the leverage to make some pretty significant demands, she says — including commitments from the Democratic establishment not to back any run against them in the next election.
Before any grand moves, there are smaller steps mainstream Republicans and Democrats could take now to marginalize the far right.
That was in the air this week when, with the House in disarray, centrists pushed to temporarily boost the powers of Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry, who has played a caretaker role since McCarthy was deposed.
There was talk of loosening House rules, in the process, to allow more bipartisan measures to come to the floor in the coming months.
The chances of the McHenry plan coming to fruition seemed slim Thursday night amid sharp right-wing opposition to ceding any power to Democrats.
But the conflict suggested an emboldened mainstream GOP.
‘This is the time’
Rebuilding the center-right is about more than seizing opportunity during the speaker’s fight.
Mainstream Republicans have long-term work to do, too — like fashioning a coherent agenda in a party that has prized performative outrage lately, instead.
They could also push for electoral changes that would make it easier for more moderate, compromise-minded politicians to take power in the GOP.
Two years ago, Virginia Republicans used a ranked-choice process to select their gubernatorial nominee. Ranked choice favors politicians who can build broad coalitions — picking up second-choice votes from other candidates’ supporters. And the process led to the nomination of Glenn Youngkin, who went on to win the general election in a purple state — and emerge as a national political star.
But these sorts of long-term changes must be preceded by short-term action.
So much of the dysfunction that alienates Americans from politics — and from the Republican Party, in particular — originates in Congress. The shutdowns, the grandstanding.
Something has to be done.
Republican Charlie Dent, who quit Congress in 2018 out of frustration with Washington’s dysfunction, said the speaker’s fight presents a rare opportunity to do that something.
And it can’t be missed.
“This is the time,” he said, in a message to his fellow mainstream Republicans, “to plant your flag in the ground.”