House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who will not be the next speaker of the House, is benefiting from the same phenomenon -- and then some. News outlets disagree over only which synonym for "chaos" to use. (Often, they just go with "chaos," as it saves precious headline space. Sometimes they go with analogies to Netflix's "House of Cards," because they have atrocious taste.) According to the New York Times, McCarthy's decision threw an "already tumultuous chamber into deeper chaos with no clear leader in sight." According to Politico, Republicans were left with "no idea of their governing agenda with several legislative battles in the coming weeks."
True, the party would be better off had it chosen a speaker candidate on Thursday. But would it have been better off with McCarthy? The evidence that Republicans lost a speaker who could bring them together is thin-to-nonexistent. Actually, until Thursday morning, the rap on McCarthy was expressed most succinctly by the New Republic's Brian Beutler:
McCarthy's record as world's worst whip survives year-long challenge from Scalise.— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) October 8, 2015
McCarthy, a "young gun" Republican organizer who helped the party recruit much of its winning 2010 class, was less a manager and more a Doctor Frankenstein. McCarthy presided over -- sorry, whipped -- a failed extension of the Patriot Act, a failed extension of the payroll tax cut, a failed attempt to raise the debt limit, a failure to pass the GOP's preferred "fiscal cliff" rescue, a failed attempt to pass the farm bill. The default drama of McCarthy's whip tenure was that Republicans would prep a vote, someone would realize that they were short, and crisis would ensue until someone wrote up a compromise that would allow Democrats to bail out a rump of the GOP.
Some of the panic over McCarthy's failure stems from the assumption that the status quo is naturally safer than change. It's certainly not rooted in the demands of House Republican rebels. Some are angry with Boehner-era leadership for refusing to face down the Obama White House, but the main demands of the House Freedom Caucus, the people who felled McCarthy, are for rules changes. The caucus endorsed Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) for speaker, a former leader of both state legislative chambers in Tallahassee, on the basis of his dry promise to listen to the Republican Conference.
"I believe we should take the rulebook we have and use it," Webster told me this week. "We should take up the most important issues first. We should hold the other issues to the end. We should never bump up against a deadline. And we should push down the pyramid of power, so there's not just a few people who know what's going on."
Obviously, the rebels have bigger dreams -- the Freedom Caucus questionnaire scooped by Politico's Jake Sherman asks a potential speaker to commit to impeaching the IRS commissioner and defunding Planned Parenthood. In this, the most conservative Republicans are simply listening to their districts, many of which were shorn up in 2011 to make their primaries more competitive than their challenges from Democrats. They were listening to their districts, too, when they repeatedly demanded a Select Committee on Benghazi. McCarthy's gaffe about the political effectiveness of that committee revealed that:
- The hard-liners had been right
- He was a candidate for speaker who often struggled to articulate his thoughts.
What will be the long-term impact of McCarthy's faceplant? If previous leadership crises tell us anything, the GOP might be better off. The 1998 impeachment debacle that took down both Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and would-be-speaker Bob Livingston (La.) produced Dennis Hastert (Ill.), who colorlessly led the House GOP through three election wins and created a separation from the past that helped George W. Bush rebrand the party. The 2004 toppling of Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) cleared the way for now-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), arguably the most effective congressional leader in a generation. His closest competitor: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose 2002 ascension to minority leader made some Democrats wonder if the party would seem hopelessly, un-electably left-wing.
The GOP is in a better position now than the Democrats or Republicans were in those scenarios. Its next speaker will inherit a majority that can sustain dozens of losses and is protected from those losses by gerrymandering in key states. And its voters, as pollsters will tell you, don't pay a ton of attention to who the speaker is. There is life after chaos -- though, seriously, it's better to figure out how to raise the debt limit first.