John Boehner's decision to vacate the House speakership in the face of a conservative uprising that thwarted him at every legislative turn and threatened to oust him seemed to create a chance that Republican revolutionaries had been seeking for the better part of the past five years. Finally, with Boehner out, the tea party wing could put one of its own — or maybe several of its own — into positions of power. Its moment had (finally) arrived.
Except that when House Republicans gather Thursday to hold elections for the next speaker and, probably, the next majority leader, the two favorites for those roles won't be revolutionaries at all. Kevin McCarthy, the current majority leader, is heavily favored to move up to the top job despite insinuating in a major gaffe last week that the Benghazi congressional committee was formed to do political damage to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Steve Scalise, the majority whip, claimed to have enough votes Sunday night to become majority leader.
So, less than two weeks after Boehner sacrificed his leadership spot at the altar of conservatives, the party seems set to move the No. 2 guy into the No. 1 spot and the No. 3 guy into the No. 2 spot. You could not have a more orderly transition.
Here's what that looks like from the perspective of the GOP revolutionaries:
The key to understanding the revolution that wasn't (or, at least hasn't happened yet) can be found in January, when the speaker vote was held. On that day, 25 Republicans voted against Boehner for speaker, the biggest intraparty revolt against a sitting speaker since the Civil War. Sure, that looked bad for Boehner. But, he still won on the first ballot and without an obvious conservative alternative. That's because conservatives in the Republican conference put forward four of their own for the speaker vote — one of the dumbest strategic moves I have seen in a long time.
(Nota bene: If you want to give people a real choice, make sure you unify behind one alternative. Otherwise, you just wind up splitting the anti-whoever vote. Student council presidents have learned this lesson by 11th grade.)
What that vote told me was that the conservative right in the House was good at agitation but terrible at execution. As in, they could make trouble for the establishment but they couldn't even come close to getting themselves organized enough to elevate one of their own. Part of that is because many of these members are both new (elected since 2010) and put into office by voters who liked the idea that they didn't bow down to any leaders — whether of the establishment or the tea party. So it's not terribly surprising that every member (or at least a lot of them) see "potential leadership material" when they look in the mirror. Why get behind another guy for speaker when you can be that guy?
Seen through that lens, the conservative failure — pending a Jason Chaffetz surge in the speaker's race — to upset the establishment apple cart isn't super surprising. In fact, it's utterly predictable.
The problem for McCarthy, Scalise and whoever winds up as the majority whip is that the tea party wing's ability to cause problems not only remains intact but may be intensified because it will — somewhat rightly — claim credit for Boehner's resignation and probably be somewhat annoyed that it still lacks a voice in leadership. (Yes, that lack of a voice in leadership is totally the movement's fault, but since when has blaming other people for problems you created not been the modus operandi of, well, all of us?)
If anything then, the challenge McCarthy and Scalise face will be greater than the one Boehner faces. A frustrated revolution that has proven itself good at disruption and bad at results is a dangerous group to deal with. That will be McCarthy's challenge — and there's little evidence that he will be up to it.