The roots run deep that brought House Republicans to this week’s demonstration of chaos and dysfunction. The problems have been building for years. Now they have been exposed for all to see — to see just how broken the GOP has become. The opening two days of the 118th Congress foreshadow turmoil, frustration and a potential breakdown in governing in the coming two years.
What has been on display is a perfect storm of misjudgment and anti-institutionalism. The failure of House Republicans to properly assess the political climate (and their own vulnerabilities) in the 2022 midterm elections left them with a narrow majority rather than the “red wave” margin they expected. That empowered the band of rebels, whose sole objective, at least for a handful, appears simply to be to blow up both the party and Congress for their own gain.
House Republicans so far are incapable of organizing themselves, as the multiple ballots for a new speaker have revealed. Six times over two days the House voted, and six times Kevin McCarthy, the man who has bent himself in every possible direction to win the speakership, has gone down to defeat. In that time, the California Republican gained not a single additional vote, despite trying concessions, indignation, confrontation, plaintive appeals and occasional brave smiles.
When a new speaker is chosen, McCarthy or someone else, that person will enter the office weakened and compromised, presiding over a majority that is not just fragile but also highly volatile. This is a dangerous combination not just for the party but for the country. The power of the Freedom Caucus rebels, who have demonstrated an insatiable appetite to claim power and extract concessions, means that even the most basic but essential functions of Congress — among them passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling limit to cover previously authorized spending — will be difficult to achieve.
An Achilles’ heel of today’s Republican Party has been its inability to govern when in power. Anti-government antagonism, which has grown steadily over the past decade, has often rendered the party incapable of separating bold political claims and aspirations — repealing the Affordable Care Act, for example — from the grittier but less satisfying work of finding compromise. Many of the new members have come to Washington not to legislate but to stop legislation, to “drain the swamp,” as former president Donald Trump has put it. Performative politics have become more appealing (and often more rewarding, in terms of fame and campaign contributions) than working in the trenches to produce results.
The House has become its own special petri dish, breeding the most virulent strain of what ails the broader party. Two days of ballots that showed the competing factions dug in against one another have given the American people an unsatisfying opening look at what the newly elected House majority is about.
The party as a whole has been torn apart by a variety of factors that have been at work for more than a decade, the rise of the tea party and the grass-roots rebellion against the GOP establishment that shaped the 2010 midterm elections to the destructive impact of Trump and the corresponding estrangement with longtime allies in big business to the weakness of elected officials to stand up against the worst influences threatening the party’s long-term health.
Charlie Sykes, a never-Trump conservative, put what has been happening in blunt terms with this tweet: “The MAGA crackup accelerated as crackpots fought with nihilists, wing nuts pointed fingers at extremists, and grifters started slap-fights with one another.”
Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who guided former president George W. Bush to a pair of victories in 2000 and 2004, expressed his exasperation at the effort by the anti-McCarthy rebels when on Wednesday they nominated Republican Byron Donalds, a second-term member from Florida, as their alternative to McCarthy.
“The fact they are driven to nominate Byron Donalds, an unremarkable sophomore, is a sign of incompetence, stupidity and absurdness of all this,” he said. “This is not a serious exercise. It is an infantile temper tantrum.”
Rove was in the White House when the first signs of this decade-plus-long rebellion began to show itself. House conservatives denied Bush his hope of passing comprehensive immigration reform. Then, as he neared the end of his presidency, they turned even more aggressively against him over what they saw as insufficient attention to continuing growth in government spending.
In 2006, when Democrats regained control of the House, the seeds were in place for an even more robust grass-roots rebellion, and with President Barack Obama in the White House, it quickly took shape in the form of the tea party movement that provided much of the energy for the GOP’s huge election victory in 2010. Tea party activists went after the Affordable Care Act more than anything, but their underlying complaint was about the size and scope of government.
Since then, one Republican leader after another has found it virtually impossible to govern or lead with a rump faction that coalesced into the Freedom Caucus. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who became speaker in 2011, gave up after four years, announcing his resignation as speaker and his retirement from Congress in October 2015 amid unrelenting warfare with the House’s most conservative faction over spending and other issues.
It was at that moment that McCarthy was poised to claim the speakership, but relented in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition, stepping aside as Republican members turned to Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) as a consensus choice to put discord and disagreement to rest and move forward with a conservative policy agenda, of which Ryan was a principal architect.
Ryan lasted a little more than four years as speaker, buffeted by the Freedom Caucus’ demands and complaints that often slowed or blocked progress under Boehner. Ryan’s tenure was further complicated by open warfare with Trump, whose disdain for the principled Wisconsin Republican was on routine display.
Even with a Republican president, congressional Republicans could not agree on an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, of which repealing was their single most stated campaign promise. Tax cuts, skewed to the wealthy, were one issue around which all could unite, but that was more the exception than the rule.
In those earlier days, the Freedom Caucus leaders included Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who later became Trump’s White House chief of staff and was there through the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and Jim Jordan of Ohio, who now supports McCarthy as speaker and whose ambition in the new House is to chair the Judiciary Committee and preside over investigations of the Biden administration.
Some of the most anti-McCarthy Republicans this week are cut from different cloth than their Freedom Caucus predecessors, part of the breed of politicians for whom social media, cable news and self-aggrandizement take precedence over the institutional obligations and governing challenges of being an elected official. These hard-liners include Matt Gaetz of Florida, Bob Good of Virginia and Paul A. Gosar of Arizona. Others like Republican Chip Roy of Texas, who has been firm in his opposition to McCarthy, have long-stated objectives to change the way the House is managed and run.
Through two days of voting, either 19 or 20 Republicans have always voted to oppose McCarthy. It’s unclear what it might take to get enough of them (no Republican can lose more than four of the 222 members in the conference, unless he or she can secure some Democratic support) to move in support of someone as the next House speaker. That bodes poorly for the new majority as they try to implement their campaign promises and work with a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Democratic president.
Speaking on the House floor in support of McCarthy on Wednesday, Republican Kat Cammack of Florida said the last thing the American people need “is uncertainty in this chamber.” Everything in the first two days of the new Congress suggests uncertainty will be the underlying theme for the next two years, to the potential detriment of the millions of people in both parties who expect their elected officials to govern effectively and collectively.