How the Right Is Reacting to the House Leadership Crisis

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House Speaker John Boehner speaks during a news conference with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2015. Photo: Andrew Harrer/© 2015 Bloomberg Finance LP

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s last-minute decision to bow out from the competition to replace John Boehner as speaker has thrown a wrench into the gears of a GOP machine that was not very well oiled to begin with. The party’s Catch-22 seems to be that any Republican representative smart enough to qualify for the speakership is too smart to want it. The animals have taken over the zoo, chaos reigns, and the Republican Party is in shambles. Charlie Rangel isn’t the only Democrat making a smoothie and kicking back to watch the GOP’s house burn down. Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher believes that McCarthy’s exit effectively assures the Democrats a victory in next year’s elections, “even if they aggressively try to lose.”

But looking at the situation from the other side of the aisle, the picture is not so clear. Writing at the Washington Post, Ed Rogers casts doubt on the notion that Boehner’s succession crisis is a crisis at all, calling it “an opportunity to have a good debate and a good contest for this vital leadership position within the Republican Party”:

Perhaps — and I emphasize perhaps — this will force even the fist-shakers within the Freedom Caucus to articulate a thoughtful position on who they are for, rather than committing to a protest vote based on who they are against. The Freedom Caucus members and others in the party will need to make a case to the broader membership about who should be the next speaker of the House, and why they are for him or her.

Hopefully, this sudden development will lead to a contest where a few good candidates will try to convince their colleagues that they are the most knowledgeable and the most articulate. Those qualifications are what the race for speaker should be about.

Right-wing Republicans are pretty equivocal about the prospect of a chaotic period while the party figures out its new leadership. “Because,” Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin writes, “electing McCarthy was the real worse scenario”:

The divide between House Republicans is not so much about issues — despite all the overheated rhetoric about betrayal from the right everyone in that caucus is a conservative — as it is about a mindset. The party regulars in the establishment want stability and order. The Tea Party Freedom caucus wants all-out war against the Democrats. Both positions have their virtues. The government needs to function but the idea of the Republican House majority merely coasting through the remaining 15 months of this term was untenable. And, fairly or unfairly, that’s what the election of McCarthy, as speaker would have meant.

Tobin wagers that the outcome of the coming period of uncertainty “will be a new speaker and leadership team that will have to have the confidence of the Tea Partiers; the essential element if the party is to be a cohesive force.” That, he concludes, is “better for the GOP than an orderly succession that would have branded the party as hopelessly out of touch with its base.”

Mike Needham, CEO of the conservative advocacy outfit Heritage Action for America, also spins the downfall of the House GOP establishment in a positive light, attributing it to the “revival of the conservative grassroots empowered by access to information and a proliferation of technology.” The way Needham sees it, the hard-line conservatives of the so-called House Freedom Caucus are right to keep pushing their agenda uncompromisingly:

House Republicans need to unite around a speaker who will pursue a positive conservative agenda that promotes opportunity for all and favoritism to none. That means moving away from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s preferred agenda. It means embracing serious policy reforms and challenging the left on the merits of those policies. It means fighting Obama in a real, substantive manner.

Washington tends not to address policy challenges until there is some action-forcing event. The Republican Party has fallen into the same trap — refusing to recognize or address its serious internal problems. This is an action-forcing event, and every single Republican needs to recognize it as such.

Tobin’s former colleague Jennifer Rubin, on the other hand, is having none of that. In the Washington Post, she tears into the Freedom Caucus, calling them “undisciplined extremists” who “can never compromise and therefore never get what they want; they can only disrupt.” Their obstructionism, she avers, will continue to damage the party until Republican voters get hip to the fact that the HFC “cannot govern and therefore should not serve”:

If the malcontents decide to run for reelection in 2016, conscientious Republicans should primary them and make the case that winning without governing is useless. The false bogeyman of the “establishment” exists only in the minds of those without the wisdom or maturity to behave responsibly in office. Voters are ultimately to blame if they reelect that crowd. And, if some of them are replaced by Democrats, it wouldn’t be the end of the world for the conservative movement or the GOP. In defeat comes self-reflection and change.

For conservative health care policy wonk Avik Roy, the HFC’s tactics in the speakership race are further evidence of their fatal flaw — the lack of any positive policy agenda:

If Republicans can’t agree on who their Speaker should be, how are they going to agree on reforming Medicare and replacing Obamacare?

If the House Freedom Caucus doesn’t think Kevin McCarthy is good enough to shrink the size of government, its preferred candidate should explain what his plan is to tackle health care entitlements, and how he plans to get a majority of the House and Senate to back it. Talk is cheap. To govern is to choose.

At National Review, John Fund worries that the leadership crisis could come back to bite the GOP in the form of changes to House procedure that dilute the power of the majority party. “Whoever the next speaker is going be, a fundamental question is going to need a resolution.” He stresses: “Are procedural questions about how the House governs itself and who exercises what powers going to be decided by the 247-member House Republican conference, or by the whole House?”

Fund’s nightmare scenario here is one in which a small number of moderate Republicans ally with the Democrats to elect a speaker, which ought to scare even hardcore Tea Party revolutionaries into compromising with their establishmentarian peers:

Conservatives are right to want action and to be frustrated by the rigid structure of Congress that makes it highly difficult to accomplish anything. But if — out of their frustration — they upend the power of the majority party in the House to dictate the agenda, they may let loose consequences that could empower Democrats and hurt Republican chances in 2016. A House majority is powerful, but only if it sticks together and remains a majority. It’s time for Republicans to lay aside some of their pettiest differences and look at the big picture.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein fears that for conservatives, there is no happy ending to be had anymore:

The best outcome? John Boehner, a victim in his own right, could thumb his nose at the radicals in his lame-duck period, and bring a blockbuster package to the floor: a two year budget deal, raising the caps; an increase in the debt ceiling along with institutionalization of the McConnell Rule to prevent future debt ceiling debacles; Ex-Im Bank re-authorization; and robust infrastructure improvements. He could say, “It is there to get 218 votes, and if it is via 199 Democrats and 20 Republicans, so be it.”

The worst case? We get a Speaker Hensarling or Jordan, and a quick confrontation over the debt limit and the spending bills, resulting in a breach in the debt ceiling and a series of government shutdowns that threaten the well-being and future of the economy. In between is a long period in limbo, drifting instead of governing.

But Ornstein’s colleague Ramesh Ponnuru is pretty confident that Paul Ryan will give in to the rising chorus of Republicans demanding that he take up the leadership role he emphatically doesn’t want. At this point, Ponnuru reasons, he pretty much has to:

Ryan is respected by most people on both sides of the divide. Many of the Republicans who were against Boehner and McCarthy would listen to him, and trust him to listen to them. They sometimes disagree with him, but they trust that he is in politics because of conservative ideas. No other House Republican has the same reservoir of goodwill. No other House Republican is considered as good a spokesman on such politically perilous issues as entitlement reform. That’s why, with him absent from the race, Republicans have no clear path forward. And it’s why try as he might to rule himself out, Ryan is going to keep hearing calls for him to take a job he does not want.