No one in America is going to change his or her mind about anything because Kevin McCarthy won’t be Speaker of the House.
If you listened to the political media, though, you might have been under the impression that something had gone horribly wrong when the House Majority Leader made the surprise decision to withdraw from the race for speaker, leaving Republicans to scramble for a candidate. This is the kind of messiness we should expecting from our most democratic institution. The House is where public sentiment first manifests. And public sentiment—on the Right, and probably in most corners of American political life right now—isn’t in the mood for coronations.
Nevertheless, nearly the entire political media treated a healthy instance of intra-party debate as a failure of governance. Upsetting the status quo (if it’s Republicans, at least) is treated as turmoil rather than change. Karen Tumulty actually wrote these words in The Washington Post:
Less than a year after a sweeping electoral triumph, Republicans are on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party.
Chaos! Majorities in the House and Senate are now useless. You know those 31 Republican governors and 31 GOP-controlled legislatures? Dead. Lincoln’s party is over because it couldn’t agree on a speaker this week. We’ll see if Tumulty is right, but every time they tell me the GOP is dead, conservatives end up on the winning side of a wave election a few months later.
In the real world, this is all far less dramatic. There are many reasons floating around about McCarthy’s change of heart, but here’s how CNN put it:
A source close to McCarthy told CNN the decision to drop out came down to ‘numbers, pure and simple,’ adding that ‘he had the votes to win the conference vote, but there just wasn’t a path to 218’ — the number of votes needed to lock down the speakership on the House floor.
For whatever reason, he didn’t have the votes. Don’t worry, Republicans can find 50 other politicians with the exact same skill set to take his place. Yet, McCarthy told National Review Online he doesn’t believe the House is “governable” anymore. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom,” he added, offering us a peek into the conceit of someone who believes everything will fall apart if he’s not in leadership.
Fact is, Republicans have gained 69 House seats since Barack Obama became president. That hardly sounds like rock bottom to me. Many of those seats were won without any help from Republican leadership in Washington. Some of the victims of conservative success have been Eric Cantor, John Boehner, and now McCarthy. So perhaps the majority leader meant that so-called institutionalists were hitting rock bottom.
Peter King from New York claimed (and we should be skeptical) that some GOP congresspeople were crying in the cloakroom (and if you do care about politics that much you definitely shouldn’t be a politician). He went on to say that America was now a “banana republic.”
Why? Because a party embodies a range of ideas regarding tactics and priorities? Does anyone believe the Democrats’ lockstep with the executive branch (other than in rare instances of political expediency) is healthier for the country? Is that sort of deference to partisanship and power what the Founders envisioned for Congress? Or is “chaos” preferable to political subservience?
No, Republicans are not united. But there are those who argue—with little evidence—that Democrats are more ready to compromise, and this sort of stubborn GOP infighting proves this thesis. So it’s worth mentioning that unity does not necessarily tell us anything about a group’s is inclination towards bipartisanship. Though it might tell us that there’s more ideological harmony or discipline among Democrats these days.
Whether this fight will be politically detrimental for quarreling Republicans is yet to be seen. (I’ve long argued that Boehner hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves.) Maybe it’ll be an electoral disaster. But real chaos, it surely isn’t.
One of things that makes D.C. stable is the broad Right-Left consensus that is reached prior to an election. That’s not about to change. Another way the House helps to stop banana-republicanism is by acting as a counterforce to the activism of other branches of government—or, what partisans like to call ‘obstruction’ when they’re in power. That, too, is not going anywhere.
The most important way the House creates stability is acting as bulwark against activism from other branches of government.
The politics won’t change much, either. Until a new president is elected, the dynamics of DC remain the dynamics because of structure, not personalities. The Treasury Department says Congress has to raise the debt ceiling by Nov. 5. Congress will agree to bump it again. Congress has to reach a two-year budget deal before funding expires. Republicans will agree, because they will not want to close down government. And conservatives will be mad.
Sooner or later, though, after someone else takes over, that new leadership will strive to maintain intraparty stability and demand disciple. That’s its job. And a bunch of newcomers will show up and want to change things, as they always do. In 1994, there was a Republican revolution in the House. By 1998, there was another House rebellion, this one overthrowing Newt Gingrich. That tension will never go away. It’s not a good thing for professional partisans, but hardly a tragedy for the rest of us. Or, at least, it’s a lot healthier for a republic than watching unprincipled politicians uncritically take orders from their leadership.
The House most directly represents the American voter, yet the political class sees pandemonium when the representatives of those voters no longer want to be managed and “governed,” but also have a voice. As news and rumors broke about majority leader dropping out, millions of people around the country were undoubtedly saying, “Who the hell is Kevin McCarthy?” They weren’t lamenting the end of the republic. And McCarthy’s lose doesn’t indicate that Republicans are on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party. Though, you’re free to dream.