Considering all the negative headlines about House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) being weakened and the looming fight to replace him, it is easy to lose perspective. Even though he is a lame duck, it is premature to count Ryan out. Likewise, it is too soon to count House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in. I do not expect Ryan to vacate the speaker’s chair before the end of his term.
Lame ducks lose their power as their terms come to a finish. That is part of what is fueling Washington’s preoccupation with who will be the next speaker; but let’s remember Ryan is popular within the GOP caucus. No one could defeat him if a vote was held today. The tally wouldn’t even be close.
As for McCarthy, his high profile and relationship with the president, combined with the fact that he is so obviously campaigning for the speakership, has drawn a lot of attention. McCarthy’s ambition is showing again — perhaps a little too much. But his ascendancy is by no means guaranteed. To many Republicans, McCarthy is just another swamp creature and he may be overplaying his hand in trying to be the White House’s candidate. In my experience, the House and Senate frequently seek to display their independence when it comes to picking leadership. They don’t necessarily think of their leaders as extensions of the White House. Notwithstanding Ryan’s endorsement of McCarthy, there will still be an open race once the speaker retires.
Others who may want to be speaker, such as House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), have done nothing to suggest they won’t run themselves depending on the circumstances. Scalise, although in leadership and from Louisiana, which is home to the original swamp, is arguably less swampy than McCarthy. He was chairman of the Republican Study Committee and has the respect of many rank-and-file and conservative Republicans.
The fact is if Ryan retired tomorrow, a majority of the Republican caucus might not support McCarthy’s speakership. But assuming that wasn’t the case and McCarthy did become speaker, he would still have to run again in January after navigating August’s continuing resolutions and the rest of September’s sausage making. That wouldn’t be a particularly flattering time to be a new speaker.
With that said, the eventual fight over who will become the next speaker of the House is predicated on the notion that Republicans will retain their majority in November. As I’ve said before, there is only a slim chance that happens. But even if it does, there is no guarantee McCarthy or Scalise will secure the requisite votes. Someone could come out of nowhere and surprise everybody.
Evaluating the virtues of any candidate to replace Ryan at this point is premature. Wanting to guess who will fill a vacant chair is Washington’s favorite game, so the endless speculation won’t stop. But a little perspective is in order. Ryan is not going anywhere until he wants to. His successor will not be preordained by maneuvering in the swamp.