When I checked in last week with some of the highly knowledgeable folks I know from my days as a congressional reporter, all of them were sure that Kevin McCarthy would be the next Speaker of the House. But they were wrong: McCarthy shocked Capitol Hill on Thursday when he abruptly dropped out of the Speaker race as elections were about to begin, forcing House Republicans to postpone the election of their new leader and sending the whole GOP conference into chaos. Representative Peter King, the voluble New York Republican, painted a desperate picture to the Washington Post’s Robert Costa of what was happening behind the scenes in the aftermath: lawmakers crying in the cloakroom from the panic and the confusion. “A banana republic,” is what King called it.
Crying in the cloakroom! What the hell is going on? To recap: At the end of last month, the current House Speaker, John Boehner, decided, after nearly five years of being pushed around by the most conservative elements of his conference, that he’d had enough of running the House and would quit. This would have been a wonderful moment for Eric Cantor, the former No. 2 in House leadership, who dreamed of one day ascending to the top, and had the backing of many of the House’s tea party members — but the tea party in Cantor’s own district had ousted him in a surprise primary defeat in 2014, ending his congressional career. McCarthy moved up to take his job when Cantor resigned a year ago. Before that, he was the GOP whip. He had, at best, a questionable track record. The whip’s job is to wrangle votes for his caucus. But for the last few years, nearly every major vote (and even some of the not-so-major ones) involved a high-stakes battle on the part of McCarthy and the Republican leadership team to convince enough members to sign on to their legislative agenda. Sometimes those battles took place behind the scenes. GOP leaders only tentatively scheduled votes, racing to put together a coalition before deadline and often repeatedly extending that deadline, so much so that reporters, members, and their staff had to linger on in the House until late at night. Sometimes those efforts failed publicly, in stunning rebukes of the party leadership on the House floor.
So when Boehner quit last month it seemed that McCarthy was the natural choice to succeed him. Yes, he was green, and yes, he was not always able to wrangle votes. But he was there! That seemed to be his major advantage. Now he’s not. No one really knows why. For the last few years there have been rumors of an affair McCarthy’s having on Capitol Hill, but they are often whispered most loudly by the forces that want to do him in (most prominently, his critics at RedState, the conservative blog founded by Erick Erickson) so they have to be taken with a grain of salt. The other very plausible scenario is that McCarthy realized that the tea party was going to make it impossible for him to govern. In a brief press conference after canceling the elections, McCarthy said, “If we’re going to be strong we need to be united.” He argued that the GOP needed “a new face” to lead them.
It’s worth noting that it was just five years ago that McCarthy co-authored a book with Cantor and Paul Ryan presenting themselves as “Young Guns,” the future faces of the GOP leadership. But what’s even more telling is that there’s no obvious person to take on the job. Republicans practically begged Representative Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the select committee on Benghazi, to run for Speaker — but Gowdy, who was elected in the Tea Party wave in 2010 and had never before served in politics, has made it clear he doesn’t want the job. Paul Ryan has done the same. For whatever reason, the House Freedom Caucus (which is basically the latest iteration of the tea party — the group keeps shifting when members find that whatever organization they’ve formed is no longer conservative enough) didn’t get behind Representative Jason Chaffetz, who put himself forward as a challenger. They’re backing Representative Daniel Webster, the former Florida House Speaker who was a key figure during the Terri Schiavo case. But Webster, also elected in the tea party wave of 2010, seems like an unlikely choice. Some lawmakers are talking about someone — maybe Representative Jeb Hensarling, a former member of leadership — taking over the job temporarily, but all of the other names being thrown out for the job seem equally random. Nobody sane wants this job, and who can blame them? The party has splintered and is completely at odds with itself. They can’t govern; they can’t even keep it together in the cloakroom. It’s the surest confirmation yet of what we are seeing reflected in the presidential nominating contest. No one is running the Republican Party. It’s a movement totally devoid of leadership. What that means for the party’s future, no one seems to know — but if I were a Republican who cared about the party, I would be deeply worried for it.