The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Madison Cawthorn discovers the un-crossable line in today’s GOP

Other Republicans delivered the type of dressing-down conspicuously absent in other cases

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) heads to the offices of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last month. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In the Trump era, members of the Republican Party have pursued a near-constant quest to see just how far they can push the bounds of acceptable political discourse. And the answer has routinely come back: farther.

Calling for the jailing of one’s political opponent? Asking America’s adversaries for political dirt? Trying to overturn a democratic election on the basis of lies about voter fraud?

All of these things have been allowed to fly in today’s GOP. Often, party leaders’ initial unease gives way to helplessness or a lack of desire to respond — or even an embrace of the provocations, in the name of owning the libs.

But for once, a Republican member of Congress appears to have stumbled upon an un-crossable line: Allowing people to believe some in his party might be sexually promiscuous or using drugs.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has stomached plenty along the way to what he hopes will be a GOP House majority that elects him as speaker. But on Wednesday, he signaled a bright red line when it comes to the conduct of freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.). Cawthorn recently claimed on a podcast that a colleague had invited him to an orgy and that he witnessed someone in a position of power using cocaine right in front of him.

This would not stand.

McCarthy signaled he had given his colleague an extensive dressing-down. He said Cawthorn had admitted the stories weren’t strictly true. He also indicated that Cawthorn needs to rethink his life choices and straighten himself out. And he even alluded to potential consequences if that doesn’t take place.

“There’s a lot of different things that can happen,” McCarthy said. “But I just told him he’s lost my trust. He’s going to have to earn it back. I mean, he’s got a lot of members very upset.”

The No. 2 House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), was also rather blunt about the consequences that could lay ahead.

It’s likely that Cawthorn’s other recent comments — when he labeled Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” — contributed to this. But McCarthy’s reaction is a pretty striking contrast to how he recently handled members of his caucus speaking at a white-nationalist conference.

Yes, McCarthy rebuked Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), calling their decision “appalling” and “unacceptable” — comments that were, by McCarthy’s standards, pretty stern. But while he publicly detailed his talks with Cawthorn on Wednesday, he repeatedly declined to press the issue so openly, or so forcefully, with Greene and Gosar.

After a meeting with Greene, there was no mention of lost trust or making amends Just about all McCarthy would say on the matter was that Greene would not attend the conference again. He declined to discuss consequences. He even reiterated that Greene and Gosar, who were previously kicked off their committees by Democrats, would be allowed to rejoin committees if Republicans win the majority in Congress.

The reasons for these divergent approaches are pretty evident.

While Cawthorn has something of a constituency in the GOP, he hasn’t rallied the Trump base in nearly the same way as Greene has. Trying to get him to fall in line is less likely to blow back on McCarthy — who is constantly minding his right flank.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that — unlike attending a white-nationalist conference, apparently — this is something McCarthy’s members really didn’t like. Nobody wants their constituents back home to believe the “House of Cards” caricature (which was the jumping-off point for Cawthorn’s comments) — that there are a bunch of deviants representing them in Washington. His comments might not have referred to any of them individually, but they have to mind their collective reputations.

The backlash was remarkably swift. There was even talk about kicking Cawthorn out of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Multiple members suggested publicly that a reprimand and an apology would be insufficient, and that Cawthorn needed to get specific if he was going to tell salacious tales.

“You should have to name names if you are going to go make those kinds of brushstroke accusations and impugn the character of people in this institution or … anybody else in this town,” an anonymous Republican told Politico.

There was also talk about more serious consequences.

“He’ll need to be careful, because eventually he’ll be judged,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said.

Womack even alluded to wanting Cawthorn out: “If it’s: ‘Hey, don’t do that, again,’ we’ve been there. Frankly, if western North Carolina is not going to fix the problem, then leadership will have to.”

They have indeed “been there.” It’s just that a sense of urgency about fixing the problem — and the enforcement mechanisms — are quite different this time.