The decision of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy today to drop out of the race for Speaker has thrown the Republican caucus into what just about everybody is calling chaos. The reason for McCarthy’s decision is obvious. Conservatives were clearly dissatisfied with what amounted to a mere reshuffling of the same leadership deck. After McCarthy’s stunningly stupid comment about the Benghazi committee, any chance that he could get to 218 votes was lost. With the only well known figure in the House GOP that might be able to unify the caucus — Representative Paul Ryan — continuing to declare that he won’t run, there doesn’t appear to be anyone in position to succeed Boehner. In short, that means the party that runs the House is in complete disarray. Neither the establishment that foolishly thought it could ram McCarthy down the throats of the caucus nor the Tea Party bloc opposing him is in position to prevail. That sets up the possibility of a lengthy battle and/or the retention of the unpopular Boehner for an interim period that would only deepen the divide between the factions. But while this sound like terrible news for a Republican Party that already had enough problems to deal with, this actually isn’t the end of the world for the GOP or the House. In this case, a little Republican chaos, provided it doesn’t last too long, may be exactly what the party needs.
Why is short-term chaos not so awful? Because 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.
If the current ferment in the presidential race that has brought outsiders to the fore means anything, it means that rank and file Republicans are fed up with simply more of the same. Indeed, to judge by the comments I read every day via email and Twitter from conservatives, they care less about issues than they do about attitude. That’s not all that wise, but it is a reflection of their frustration and that demands the attention and the respect of Republican leaders.
Those who favored McCarthy and who defended John Boehner as well as his Mitch McConnell, his Senate counterpart, against charges that they are Obama’s accomplices, are right to point out that Republicans can’t govern on their own without the White House or at least a cloture-proof 60 vote majority in the Senate. The Constitutional checks and balances handed down to us by the Founders means that merely winning a midterm election in 2014 wouldn’t give conservatives the ability to undo everything President Obama has done.
Yet the failures of the GOP Congress to stymie Obama’s domestic agenda and the ease with which he rolled them on the Iran nuclear deal rankles Republican voters in a way that it didn’t seem to upset the leaders. They will have to wait until January 2017 — assuming the GOP prevails in November 2016 — to really start changing things. But if they were saddled with a recycled establishmentarian House leadership, it would have been seen as a betrayal of everything the party is supposed to stand for.
Anything, even a short period of chaos, would be better for the party and its chance to mobilize its grass roots next year then a dispiriting speakership election that would have told rank and file conservatives their opinions don’t matter. Though those Republicans waiting patiently in line for their chance at leadership positions don’t want to hear it, the only possible response to the end of Boehner was a clean sweep and a fresh leadership team.
Of course, the very notion of uncertainty is anathema to a party that, at its core, craves a degree of order and stability. The idea that anyone, including backbenchers that nobody knows about, could step forward at this crucial moment and become part of the House leadership is scary to those with a vested interest in keeping the machinery of government well-greased. But though this moment of chaos is scary, it should also be invigorating. We are used to thinking of Congress as, in P.J. O’Rourke’s memorable phrase, “a parliament of whores.” But though it is has its share of dullards and fools, the House GOP also has a lot of smart, talented people who are just as capable of making the place work as McCarthy and his clean cut and well-mannered friends.
What will follow is an experiment, but, no matter how it turns out, the betting here is that the end result 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. Chaos might also serve to force Ryan, arguably the smartest and most able figure in the House, to put aside his understandable personal qualms about assuming the speakership.
But whether the next speaker is Ryan or someone we’re not thinking about yet, it will be better for the GOP than an orderly succession that would have branded the party as hopelessly out of touch with its base. In that sense, a little chaos might be the best thing to happen to the House GOP in a long time.