Nine months into their reign as the majority party in the House, Republicans have brought the legislative body to a halt and themselves to an inflection point. By ousting Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) as speaker and exposing anew the destructive tendencies of their most extreme members, Republicans now risk being returned to minority status by voters in next year’s election.
From the day they were all sworn in this January, their grip on power was tenuous, far more so than almost anyone was predicting a year ago when talk of a red-wave election was in vogue. They did win the majority in the 2022 midterm elections, but by the narrowest of margins in a surprising under-performance. To succeed as legislators, they needed cohesion, discipline and leadership. Instead, they produced chaos under a speaker who was so weakened after getting the job that he could not lead effectively.
One other factor has brought the House Republicans to this point. That is the person and example of Donald Trump, the former president. Trump put governing by chaos on steroids (if one can call what he did governing) and in doing so produced a group of Mini-Mes, symbolized most by the politician who brought down McCarthy on Tuesday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.). This is the kind of leadership the party now offers the country.
On Monday night, a photo was posted on X, formerly Twitter, of Gaetz on the steps of the Capitol surrounded by an enormous scrum of reporters and cameras. As someone noted, this was what the Florida Republican always dreamed up, the brightest of spotlights. He embodied the worst of performative politics, which have come to typify this era. The rewards — fame, television time and adulation of the base — now go to those who shout the loudest rather than those who do the most good for the country.
McCarthy was not the first recent speaker to find his leadership hectored by a rebellious faction on the right. Two of his predecessors, former speakers John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) eventually departed in disgust. McCarthy was tossed out — the first speaker ever to suffer that humiliation after the shortest tenure in history.
Nor is he the first Republican speaker in recent times to fall in the wake of missteps. Newt Gingrich (Ga.) quit the post after his party suffered a defeat in the 1998 midterm election during an impeachment proceeding against President Bill Clinton that lacked public support.
The arrival of the tea party class after the big 2010 victory signaled a change in attitude among elected Republicans. They were members who were elected with the expressed purpose of gumming up the gears of government. They came to stop things from happening, not to make them happen.
Back then, McCarthy was one of a trio of “young guns,” youthful rising stars among House Republicans. Ryan was another and a third was former representative Eric Cantor (Va.). Now all three have been felled, Cantor in a 2014 primary election that caught him by surprise and Ryan after growing weary from fights with Trump and hard-right rebels.
Of the three, McCarthy’s defeat was the most ignominious. Ahead of Tuesday’s floor vote that brought him down, McCarthy had vowed to keep fighting. After the vote, rather than face another humiliation by trying to regain his post, McCarthy announced he would step aside, leaving the Republican conference in even more disarray, with no consensus successor in sight and business in the House now ground to a halt for a week as Republicans try to regroup.
McCarthy learned no lessons from either President Biden or former speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). During Biden’s first two years in office, when Democrats had a slender majority in the House and no margin for error in the Senate, the president found ways to produce bipartisan support for legislation when possible and used party-line discipline when he could not corral Republican votes.
Like McCarthy, Pelosi governed with a small majority and faced internal divisions in her caucus. But she was the strongest speaker in modern times, and her ability to exercise power kept Democrats on a path forward. Biden and Pelosi suffered some setbacks, but both, with the experience gained over years in leadership positions, found ways to succeed.
Neither, however, faced quite what McCarthy confronted when, on the 15th ballot in January, he was elected to the post for which he had hungered for years. In his case, he lacked ballast — a politician for which power was the principal goal, rather than a vision and convictions about why he wanted that power.
Veteran Republicans watched Tuesday’s events unfold with a sense of both déjà vu and disgust. For Gaetz and the other Republicans who assured McCarthy’s ouster, this was a short-term victory. They struck the king and, for now, killed him. But they have no obvious second chapter.
It’s not that some of their goals — reining in spending or tightening up the U.S.-Mexico border — are wholly without merit. Yet they are unwilling to acknowledge the obvious — that at a time when they control neither the White House nor the Senate, and have such a narrow majority in the House, they must cooperate with Democrats to get anything passed, and to do that they must accept less than they want.
That seems like civics 101, but it’s more than just the rebels in the House who resist that course. A recent Economist/YouGov poll showed that more Republican rank-and-file say they want their representatives to stand on principle “no matter what” than say they would rather they compromise to get things done. That is a recipe for stalemate and disappointment, and so theatrics become attractive. Democrats, by 3-1, said they favor compromise to get things done.
McCarthy spent last week trying to pull his conference together to produce a spending bill that, even if doomed in the Senate, would have shown that Republicans could agree on something. When he suddenly shifted course on Saturday and moved a short-term spending bill through the House with the help of Democrats, a bill that was quickly approved by the Senate, he may have guaranteed his ouster. Good luck to whoever emerges as the next Republican speaker.
Rep. Bob Good (Va.), one of Gaetz’s chief allies in the move to push McCarthy out, told CNN’s Manu Raju on Tuesday evening that what happened on Tuesday was a “blow to the status quo.” That’s a mild way of describing what he and a few of his colleagues did.
The blow was far more to the status of the Republican Party. And what is the party today? It is a party whose leader for its presidential nomination sits in a New York courtroom, who faces four other trials for criminal indictments ahead, and who promises vengeance and retribution if elected in 2024. It is also a party with a tight group of rebels in the House who have shown that they can make turmoil the order of the day in Congress.
That doesn’t mean Republicans will lose the election in 2024, given how closely divided the country remains politically. But nothing that happened on Tuesday can be seen as helpful in achieving that goal.