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What McCarthy Award? by John Mark Hansen


Republican hardliners who blocked their own party’s choice for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives have succeeded, and the new leadership shackles will raise the prospect of prolonged government shutdowns and a historic default on the national debt. They will also jeopardize the future of the party.

CHICAGO — Over the past four days, Americans and others around the world have been watching the spectacle of the United States House of Representatives trying — and failing, 14 times — to elect a new president. Now, making even more concessions, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California has finally grabbed the hammer. McCarthy won, but at an alarming cost to the country and his own party.

Some features of the conflict within the Republican Party that we have seen this week are not new. Each party has its ideological factions. Others, however, represent a fundamental change. Unlike dissidents who have challenged the leadership of Congress in the past, this week’s resisters belong to the most extreme wing of the party. By forcing concessions, they made their personal ideological beliefs the Republican Party’s agenda.

What was at stake in the last two months of Republican bargaining was the authority of the Speaker of the House, the only leader of Congress specified in the Constitution. To the extent permitted by the rules of the House, the Speaker sets the agenda for the House and mobilizes the majority party to act. The 20 or so Republicans who have crippled House business have sought to drastically curtail the president’s power. They forced McCarthy to adhere to a rule change that would again allow only one member to call a vote of no confidence in his leadership. And now, by holding out longer, they’ve made McCarthy give up even more.

Intra-party disputes over leadership powers are not new. The last stalemate over the choice of president, in 1923, rested on demands by progressive Republicans for procedural concessions from party conservatives, particularly Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts, the president for the previous two terms. Likewise, a 1910 “revolt” against Joseph Cannon of Illinois, also led by progressive Republicans, loosened the president’s grip on politics and prerogatives.

The current alignment of forces is very different, however, because it is no longer the “moderates” who are demanding changes in the party leadership; they are extremists. Although most of the holdouts were only recently elected, they are clearly spiritual descendants of the Tea Party movement that burst into Congress in 2010. For a dozen years, members of this cohort have placed their “principles above “opportunity,” as they would. said so and refused to support appropriation bills, debt ceiling increases and other essential legislation. They then saw Republican leaders – driven by a sense of responsibility or fear of the consequences of failure – making deals with Democrats in the House and Senate to ensure that essential legislation was enacted.

The extremists then demanded revenge on the rulers after the fact. In 2014, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – the next presidential candidate – suffered a shock defeat to a right-wing challenger from his own party. It was only a prelude: the same extremist forces then purged Republican President John Boehner in 2015 and ousted President Paul Ryan in 2019. Now they have succeeded in depriving leaders of the opportunity to work responsibly from across the aisle, reintroducing a mechanism that will subject the President to the constant threat of immediate dismissal.

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It’s not nothing. It makes all the difference whether challenges to party leadership come from the middle or the extremes. The increase in the weight of the moderates generally benefits both the party and the country. For the country, this fosters the kind of bipartisan cooperation needed to conduct the business of the legislature. And for the party, it creates a record with broader appeal, leading to better results in future elections.

In contrast, the concessions that today’s dissidents have won will hurt Republicans as well as the country. Indeed, extremists demand that their party leaders not pass any legislation that they personally disapprove of, however important it is for the future of the party, and however vital it is for the country. Not only do they want to cut off all cooperation with the Democrats (as disturbing as that posture is); they also want to force their own Republican colleagues to bend to their will, the will of a few.

Since Republicans regained control of the House in 1995, the party leadership has observed Hastert rule. Implemented by President Dennis Hastert (a Republican from Illinois who was later jailed for child molestation), it requires leaders to only advance policies that win the support of a Republican conference majority.

Now that the extremists have won, the new excessive restraints imposed on the leadership raise the prospect of prolonged government shutdowns and a historic default on the national debt. They also jeopardize the future of the party. Of the 200 Republicans who backed McCarthy in early votes for president, 18 represent districts that voted for Joe Biden in 2020. Another 20 could be at risk if Republican leaders fail to fulfill their responsibilities to the people American.

Republican Party hardliners love to scorn their fellow moderates by calling them “Republicans in Name Only” (RINO). But the demands of the moderates were in the interest of the party (and the country), both when they challenged the leadership in the past and when they supported it recently. So who are the real RINOs?




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