Discussing the chaos gripping the House Republican caucus, Joe Scarborough put his finger on one of the major problems facing House Republicans: a lack of strategic thinking. The former Republican congressman from Florida mused last week on his eponymous MSNBC morning show that when he was in Congress in the late 1990s, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich would be in his Capitol suite plotting the caucus’s next moves in the thrust-and-parry of governing with a Democrat in the White House.
Ain’t no such thing happening with the current GOP-led House.
The tea party took over the Republican Party in 2010 and elevated Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) to speaker in 2011. And from that moment on, he lived in political fear of the burn-this-mother-down members of his majority. Whatever strategy he hoped to employ, assuming he had one, was waylaid by their outsize ambitions and unrealistic expectations. Each successive election added to their ranks and their hubris.
With 247 members after the 2014 midterm elections, the Republican majority now wrecking the House is the largest since 1929. That tea party faction metastasized into the so-called Freedom Caucus, a rump group of about 40 far-right conservative members that spooked the speaker’s gavel out of Boehner’s hands and ensured it would never warm in House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s.
As much as Boehner and his leadership team are to blame for lacking strategic thinking, there’s another equally important factor at work in the chaos on Capitol Hill. Their members are unwilling to be led.
Part of the reason McCarthy was a terrible whip was that he could never corral the votes Boehner needed to pass legislation, which made a weak speaker inside the chamber plainly apparent to the rest of us watching outside. And things didn’t get any better once he was elevated to majority leader after the forced retirement of Eric Cantor. That McCarthy thought he could actually lead the majority as speaker was foolish.
The tea party class of 2010 was sent to Washington to block, cut and shut down the government. No amount of cajoling or pleading deterred them. None of the negative impacts of actually shutting down the government or playing chicken with the debt ceiling in 2011 humbled them. If anything, increasing their numbers in the two subsequent elections and retaking the Senate in 2014 have only convinced them that their way is best. Which brings me to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Without question, the 2012 vice presidential nominee and current chairman of the powerful Ways and Means committee is speaker-of-the-House material. You might not like his fiscal ideas or entitlement reform plans, but at least he has them and can rationally debate them with Democrats and the White House. Ryan would be the strategic thinker the Republican House majority needs and with whom Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) could govern.
But Ryan would still have to deal with a House majority that does not want to be led. And ponder this. Ryan exhibited all the strategic thinking and leadership one would want in a speaker when he negotiated the compromise bipartisan budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in December 2013. How long before the folks pining for Ryan to be Speaker Ryan turn on him because of it?
Asked “if the House is governable” during a telephone interview with Rich Lowry of the National Review, McCarthy said, “I don’t know. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.” Knowing that, why on earth would Ryan, who has presidential ambitions, agree to be speaker? Why would anyone want to be speaker under these conditions? No one in their right mind would.
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