A political earthquake has struck Washington. The first cracks in the ground appeared on September 25 when House Speaker John Boehner, the party’s highest ranking leader and most important negotiator, announced his resignation. Not retirement, which would have been stunning in and of itself: resignation. Boehner was calling it quits. In the midst of a looming government shutdown and a chaotic presidential primary, the GOP’s most powerful politician was about to give up.
Then the ground gave way completely. The leading contender to replace Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, abruptly announced his withdrawal from the leadership race. Since then the House has been thrown into a crisis resembling the ‘mere anarchy’ Yeats described in his apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming.” McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican who lucked into his current role as House Majority leader after Eric Cantor was defeated by an unknown college professor in the primary, has given no compelling explanation for his actions. His fellow Republicans have seen his withdrawal as an act of high treason, tantamount to ripping up his GOP membership card. McCarthy’s political star has just gone supernova.
So why would McCarthy put himself through all this misery? Perhaps he pulled out on the heels of his incendiary comments about the House Benghazi Commission, which he bragged would defeat Hillary Clinton. Perhaps he withdrew because of rumors, as yet unsubstantiated, of an affair with fellow GOP Representative Renee Ellmers. Or maybe McCarthy simply didn’t think he could get the job in the first place. The power struggle within the Republican ranks, between the conservatives and ultra-conservatives, has made many ambitious House Republicans, including luminaries like Paul Ryan, Darrell Issa, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, think twice about making moves for higher roles in the leadership. Indeed, when compared with other representatives, McCarthy’s credentials don’t exactly scream “leader.” He has not been closely involved in the high-stakes political battles that have characterized Obama’s presidency. In addition, during his time as House Majority Whip, McCarthy was unsuccessful in channeling the Republicans’ electoral victories into legislative ones. Maybe it’s best for everyone that he’s left the race.
With McCarthy gone, Boehner’s here to stay—well, at least for the time being. In late October, the House will elect a new speaker; barring a major scandal or truly grave political crisis, that new speaker will probably be Budget Committee chairman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who has yet to formally announce a bid. The hardline conservatives Jason Chaffetz and Daniel Webster, who have already announced campaigns, stand little chance of actually being elected Speaker, though they could siphon off enough votes to make things interesting. This possibility, however, falls squarely in the realm of the hypothetical. We simply can’t predict what will happen until after Paul Ryan makes a final decision, let alone until the actual votes come through on October 29.
But on a broader level this episode tells us something important about the state of today’s Republican Party. The failure of a Republican congressional majority to achieve key legislative goals is one thing; Republicans can point to Obama’s veto threats, as well as Democratic intransigence in the Senate, as legitimate explanations for their legislative failures. But Republicans have another problem that Democrats just don’t have: the GOP can’t seem to control its own ranks. There has been no talk of a coup against Nancy Pelosi in the House; Chuck Schumer seems like a shoe-in for the next Senate Majority Leader. The crisis of Republican leadership, then, has had the unintentional effect of dramatically raising the stakes of the presidential primary. If Republicans can’t rely on their leaders in Congress to realize their political and legislative agenda, winning the presidency becomes even more important. Maybe that’s why fourteen Republican politicians, including senators like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio who otherwise could have promising legislative careers, have offered themselves at the presidential altar.