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Identity Crises

The Real Reason House Republicans Can’t Elect a Speaker

Turns out there are consequences for not having any policy ideas or purpose.

Tom Williams/Getty Images
Representative Patrick McHenry, currently serving as speaker pro tempore

The House speaker’s race has entered its Groundhog Day era. Every day, Republicans meet to try to elect a new speaker, and every day they fail in new and more spectacular ways. It has now been more than two weeks since Kevin McCarthy was stripped of the gavel by a gang of disaffected right-wingers led by Matt Gaetz. Despite numerous potential successors appearing—the three plausible candidates include Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan, and the current Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry (who some members of the House want to make a kind of permanent temporary speaker)—none has enough support to ascend into the role. Not only that, all three have a small but stubborn opposition intent on blocking their path to the speakership. At this point, there’s no unifying figure on the horizon, so we’re caught in a loop: Republicans wake up, yell at each other, sometimes cast votes, and sometimes not—yadda yadda—we never get a speaker.

Some have described this dynamic as a “civil war,” a phrase that recalls the fissures between establishment figures and insurgents during Donald Trump’s emergence. Those fissures still exist: One major issue driving the conflict is that the House caucus has long been controlled by extremists but also features nearly two dozen Republicans representing districts that Joe Biden won in 2020 who favor a more moderate approach.

But there is another culprit as well. For all the talk about extremists and moderates, there are almost no concrete policy demands being discussed among Republicans. The party has a set of broad priorities, sure: Cut spending, investigate Joe Biden, and own the libs at every opportunity. But none of the factions vying for power want to actually do anything in particular. This has resulted in a conflict based almost entirely on personalities and vibes; it is no wonder that it’s become intractable and endless. But this is the natural end state of a party that has long since abandoned policymaking in favor of weaponizing the government to fight culture-war battles.

The simplest way to tell this story goes something like this: To become speaker in January, Kevin McCarthy struck a deal with members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, essentially allowing them to call a vote to oust him whenever they felt like it. After McCarthy made the cardinal sin of negotiating with the Democrats to keep the government open, they did just that. Eight Republicans joined with the entire Democratic caucus to strip the gavel from McCarthy.

But why this happened was rooted as much in the fact that these members just didn’t like McCarthy personally as in any political reason. That they didn’t care for him is why he was put on an untenably short leash in the first place. Once McCarthy got the ax, two candidates emerged: Jim Jordan, a Trump-backed bomb thrower, and Steve Scalise, a hard-liner who was seen as marginally more institutionally minded, given his long service in House GOP leadership. Scalise narrowly but definitively won a vote to become his caucus’s nominee for speaker but then quickly ran into a problem: Enough Jordan backers decided they would never back Scalise because he didn’t have the votes. And so, 30 hours after receiving his party’s nominee to be speaker, he backed out of the race.

Then it was Jordan’s turn. The Ohio Republican had clearly hoped to benefit from being the last horse in the race. Despite being incompetent (Jordan is good at going on television and bad at legislating) and unpopular (in large part because he is good at going on television and bad at legislating), there was reason to think that he could win by virtue of being the only option left. But Jordan went about his business by cultivating the bad blood that had long been flowing between him and other caucus members (his treatment of Scalise was one of many ways Jordan exacerbated the enmity), which drove (at least) two dozen Republicans to eventually decide they would never back his candidacy.

From there, the party’s best hope was to turn to McHenry, who had been serving as speaker pro tem ever since McCarthy’s defenestration. There was hope that the party’s nonfringe members could strike some kind of deal with Democrats to extend McHenry’s status as temporary speaker. This, however, is where it ran aground: Working with Democrats to resolve the situation was deemed to be a nonstarter for too many Republicans; the unprecedented nature of empowering the speaker pro tem as a long-term solution alienated others. And so, by Thursday evening, we were all back not-quite-but-close-to where we started from: with Jordan once again whipping votes. There are zero indications he will be able to flip enough of the 20 Republicans who voted against him on a second ballot to become speaker. In fact, many are refusing to meet with him or even take his calls.

In a normal situation, a speaker candidate would go to the various factions within the caucus and try to strike a deal, making it clear that they would move forward with various agenda items in exchange for support. Holding a caucus together while making multiple agreements with multiple factions is, more or less, the job of the party leader: It is one at which Nancy Pelosi was particularly adept. (On Thursday, Pelosi twisted the knife, telling reporters, “I think [House Republicans are] taking lessons in mathematics and learning how to count.”)

But the math isn’t the culprit. Given the slim majority the House GOP possesses, such dealmaking is tricky but not impossible: You can lose five Republicans (depending on absences or abstentions, that number could be higher) and still become speaker. McCarthy’s nomination was held up for 15 ballots until he made a deal.

The McCarthy deal was instructive, however, in that it was more of a power-sharing agreement than anything else: In exchange for their support, McCarthy gave Gaetz and a band of like-minded yahoos a veto over the business of the House. When McCarthy went around them to do that business, they got mad and pressed the eject button, ending his speakership after just nine months. More than anything, McCarthy’s crime was attempting to do normal legislating, which requires some degree of communication and collaboration with Democrats—two things Republicans are increasingly against. McCarthy only did this twice in nine months, but that was two times too many.

If House Republicans had any actual objectives beyond stymying the Biden administration and blocking liberal priorities, we would likely have a speaker right now. But without a set of tangible and material policy goals to unite this party, they are unraveling. This is, relatedly, what has empowered Donald Trump, a strongman who has been able to transform a party without a vision into a cult of personality using some simple carrots (nice tweets) and sticks (mean tweets).

That’s basically the story. With no productive purpose to set their hands to, House Republicans have collapsed and turned on one another. It’s possible that they will find some way out of this mess. They might surrender to Jordan’s persistence and put him through what they’ve already forced McCarthy to endure. Enough Republicans may get fed up with the whole thing to strike a deal with Democrats—though this strikes me as highly unlikely given the fact that bipartisanship in any form has become an excommunicable offense. No matter who or what emerges as speaker, however, they’ll still be in the same mess because they lack a larger purpose. And while a speaker may eventually emerge, the same dreadful conditions will likely prevail. Who can say when the next anointed one will find themself shoved under the bus?