Empty threats

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In early 2023, House Republicans threatened to shut down the government. Nearly the entire media and pundit class acted like it had a 99% or 100% chance of happening. And then it… didn’t happen. For the past month House Republicans have once again been threatening to shut down the government. Once again, the media acted like it had a 99% or 100% chance of happening. But it’s now looking like it probably won’t happen – and that it was never likely to happen.

House Republicans also spent months threatening to launch impeachment hearings against President Biden, and the media spent the entire time acting like this had a 99% or 100% chance of happening. Instead House Republicans backed down and launched a mere “impeachment inquiry” instead. What’s more, they didn’t even have the votes for an impeachment inquiry, instead opting to do it in unofficial fashion. If they didn’t have the votes for a mere inquiry, then they were never close to having the votes for actual impeachment hearings.

House Republicans have also spent all year publicly threatening to defund Special Counsel Jack Smith’s Trump probe. We keep seeing that threat cited in headline after headline, as if it were a credible threat. But in reality, there’s no such thing as the House defunding Smith’s probe. With the way DOJ prioritizes its funding, any government shutdown or budgetary changes wouldn’t impact Smith’s work.

The one persistent theme we keep seeing from House Republicans is that they don’t appear to have the votes to do any of the things they keep threatening to do. So why do we keep seeing the media (on both sides) present these empty threats as if they’re real things that are almost certainly going to happen?

It comes down to one word: drama. House Republicans know they can simply threaten to do some awful thing, and the entire media will jump on that threat and present it as being a real thing that’s definitely going to happen, because the resulting controversy is good for ratings. Right-leaning media will say it’s great that House Republicans are going to do the thing. Left-leaning media will say it’s awful that House Republicans are going to do the thing. But the entire media will agree that House Republicans are going to do the thing – and then the thing never happens.

The media knows that these threats coming from House Republicans are unlikely to happen, and in some cases outright impossible. The media just doesn’t care about that. It can’t resist the opportunity to ramp up the drama, in a way that keeps people glued to their screens and boosts ratings. House Republicans see the media jump on every empty threat they make, and so they respond by continuing to make empty threats. It allows House Republicans to look like they’re doing something, without actually having to stick their necks out by doing anything.

The kicker is that these House Republicans aren’t very good at this. Kevin McCarthy complained to the TV cameras on Monday that he has a very narrow majority, a recent resignation, and some absences within his own caucus. He’s at a point where he’s making excuses for the fact that he doesn’t have the votes to do any of the things he’s been threatening to do. So if even McCarthy is admitting he doesn’t have the votes, when is the media going to stop portraying his empty threats as if they’re real?

On Monday, House Republican Byron Donalds admitted in a tweet that there is no such thing as Congress being able to defund Jack Smith’s probe. But the next time Jim Jordan publicly threatens to defund Jack Smith’s probe, you just know that major media outlets on both sides are going to run headlines which falsely imply that Jordan can defund Jack Smith.

As I’ve periodically pointed out throughout all of this, there’s still a greater than zero chance that these House Republicans could eventually end up shutting down the government, or impeaching President Biden, when it’s all said and done. It’s difficult to predict with certainty what a group of people will do when they’re 1) leaderless and 2) stupid. Maybe they’ll have the votes in the future. But as of now it’s plainly obvious that House Republicans aren’t even close to having the votes internally for impeachment or shutdown, and at no point in 2023 have they been close to having the votes. All year long, it’s been empty hype.

House Republicans are so exhausted from their own hijinks that they’re now admitting, in exact words, that they can’t pull off any of the things they’ve been threatening to do all year. So when is the media going to start treating these empty threats like the empty threats that they are?

The only little bit of leverage that House Republicans have left is that so much of the general public mistakenly thinks House Republicans can hold us all hostage. The only reason the public has that perception is that the media (on both sides) has spent all year helping House Republicans pretend that their empty threats are real. When does it stop? If the media starts accurately labeling these empty threats as empty threats, House Republicans will have no leverage left at all.

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