Henry Clay could be speaker of the House, bring great gravitas to the position — and still only muster some oversight investigations and a big spending fight or two.
Marjorie Taylor Greene could be speaker of the House (at this rate, no one should count her out), use the position as a platform for juvenile trolling — and still muster some oversight investigations and a big spending fight or two.
So this episode won’t alter the trajectory of Washington politics or the priorities of the GOP. It is mainly important as another indication that the GOP lacks any coherent center of authority, and is a party that, to some significant extent, loathes itself.
The big disaggregating trends in American life — particularly, the rise of the internet and social media — have eroded the power of party establishments. Politicians can easily establish their own fundraising bases and their own brands outside the control of party bigwigs. But, pace Will Rogers, it is the Republicans who have been most disrupted; Democrats look, in relative terms, like a well-oiled machine.
After the early Democratic nominating contests nearly destroyed Joe Biden in 2020, Democrats flocked to him as the safest and most familiar and conventional choice. Other candidates dropped out as if on cue and even Bernie Sanders — who technically isn’t a Democrat — played ball.
In short, the party stood on its head the old Bill Clinton adage that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line.
In the House over the last few years, Nancy Pelosi had a majority as slender as Kevin McCarthy’s and her own faction of recalcitrant hardliners in the form of the Squad. She had some rocky legislative moments, but she always maintained her sense of authority, and no one dared deliberately humiliate her. After the loss of the midterms, she managed an orderly transition to the next generation.
House Republicans, in contrast, can barely organize themselves to take the power that they won in November.
The GOP over the years has become alienated from itself. First, George W. Bush left office on a low note, a disillusioning experience for the party that cast a pall of suspicion over anyone associated with that era. Then, the tea party brought an infusion of new blood with only an attenuated connection to the party and often a hostile attitude toward it — it was the tea party members who made Speaker John Boehner’s life miserable, and its left-over rump is making would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s life miserable. Finally, Donald Trump blew up whatever was left of the party establishment in 2016.
Notably, Trump became the party leader by not being a party man. He was barely a Republican when he started out, and it seems likely that if he is denied the Republican nomination in 2024, he will do everything to sabotage its prospects. It’s hard to think of a former president who has been less invested in his party’s interests, and many Republicans are fine with that.
No one is in charge. Mitch McConnell is the closest there is to the ballast of an establishment, but he’s hated by the MAGA base. Trump’s bid to create his own counter-establishment faltered badly with his midterm debacle. Even the voices on the right with the biggest media megaphones haven’t been able to cow the anti-McCarthy rebels.
The fact is that an anti-authority spirit pervades a portion of the party, and the authority it opposes is that of its own side.
Kevin McCarthy is not a visionary or inspirational leader, and has been around Washington a long time, but his fundamental offense for his enemies is seeking to be speaker. By the usual calculus, the absence of on obvious alternative to McCarthy would militate against opposing him. But, given the attitude of many of the rebels, this makes it an even purer exercise — an act of defiance unburdened by a substantive agenda or a different candidate.
Ordinarily, threatening the leadership bid of a member of your own party is a means to an end. It is true that the anti-McCarthy faction has made procedural demands, and gotten many of them. But, at the end of the day, its opposition feels more like an end than a means.
The old GOP “obstructionism” was directed at the agenda of the other party for deep-seated ideological reasons; the new GOP obstructionism is directed at itself as it tries — and, for now, fails — to undertake the most basic act of governance. Welcome to the Will Rogers Republican Party.