House Republicans’ dysfunctional quest to do nothing

By Matthew Gagnon

There’s an adage: Democrats fall in love. Republicans fall in line.

In the past, the adage was fairly accurate. Democrats would frequently be led around by their short, intense passion upon discovering a new candidate to believe in, oftentimes causing division and publicly visible intraparty conflict. Meanwhile, the businessman-like Republican party got down to business, set aside various internal differences and marched together with military precision.

This was particularly true in the middle of the 20th century, as the Democratic Party underwent a significant transition from an establishment heavy, working class party to one of young antiestablishmentarians and academics. While the Republicans, despite major internal disagreements on issues, nominated Richard Nixon on the first ballot in a mostly uneventful and workmanlike convention, the 1968 Democratic convention three weeks later was a famous mess. The chaotic factionalism within the party exploded into protests, floor fights, and even violence, and all of it because the grassroots base fell in love with then-U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, and refused to fall in line behind their establishment option like the Republicans did. 

Today, that adage is entirely reversed. Now it is the Democrats who fall in line, while the Republicans war with each other, in love with their various chosen ones and unwilling to get on the same team with one another for the greater good.

This was on display this week when U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California endured a rare indignity in his quest to become speaker of the House, failing on not one, not two, but three ballots before the House ultimately adjourned Tuesday without electing a speaker. All after he prematurely moved into the speaker’s office.

Elections for speaker are typically dull affairs. Representatives who are elected to lead Congress, particularly with a change of party control, are usually eager to prove that they can effectively govern. That means they take care of business behind closed doors in the days and weeks after the election, so they go into the first day of a new Congress ready to back someone they can all agree on. 

Not this year. Initially thought to be limited to roughly five or six conservative malcontents, McCarthy quickly learned that the rebellion he was facing was much more substantial. In the first and second rounds, 19 Republicans took a walk, and in the third round, a 20th member voted against McCarthy. 

To say this is unprecedented would be an understatement. So rare is the failure experienced by Republicans Tuesday that this is the first time in more than a century that a speaker was not chosen in the initial vote.

As we survey the wreckage, many explanations are being offered, and a lot of analysis is being offered. 

From my perspective, though, two seemingly contradictory things are true. The House GOP insurrection on McCarthy’s bid for speaker is simultaneously ridiculous, and also entirely justified.

It is ridiculous because there is no end to the ways that Republicans will eat their own in a perpetual, self-interested, dysfunctional quest to do nothing. No longer the party that “falls in line,” they are now a party that can’t even agree on what to have for lunch today. 

The selection of McCarthy, after serving as leader during an election that saw his party retake the House, in which his financial and campaign support for many members made the difference in many swing districts should have been a foregone conclusion. It shouldn’t have been controversial, proving that there are a lot of petulant children in Congress, more interested in getting their fifteen minutes of fame than actually doing their job.  

At the same time, it is justified because McCarthy is a weak leader and appears to be politically impotent to the extreme. His lack of leadership and inability to inspire his caucus to follow him is why he failed, despite being the heir apparent to former U.S. Rep. John Boehner, to become speaker in 2015. And it is why he may ultimately fail again this week.

McCarthy’s critics are right: he really isn’t the best choice for speaker and would be a fairly ineffective leader were he to gain the gavel. But is he so bad, and are his potential replacements (whoever they are) so good, that it is worth humiliating the entire party in front of the American people while showcasing an inability to functionally govern?

The real answer to that is no. Milquetoast as he is, McCarthy likely should have been selected Tuesday, and if a coup were to have happened it should’ve happened weeks ago, before the new Congress convened. But now that the damage has been done, it is probably best if McCarthy steps aside in the interest of the party and allows another to lead. Again.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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