Where have you gone, Mitt Romney? A party turns its lonely eyes to you.
The shock announcement by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy midday Thursday to quit a Speaker’s race everyone assumed he had in the bag underlined a troubling truth for GOP faithful: Right now, among Republicans, the only order is disorder.
It seems like a lot longer than three years ago the party was united behind the presidential candidacy of an investor-turned-blue state governor with the reassuring mien of a 1950’s sitcom dad.
Republicans have long made orderly succession and a corporate-style respect for their internal pecking order hallmarks of the party’s self-governance. Now, they’re caught in a destabilizing feedback loop: Discord on Capitol Hill reverberates out on the campaign trail and bounces back again louder. A trio of presidential hopefuls with less combined time in elected office than the lowliest freshman backbencher in Congress still lead the presidential field, by a lot. In the Capitol, Speaker John Boehner can’t even resign, because his conference, too fractious to govern, won’t agree on a replacement.
The chaos engulfing House Republicans now isn’t totally without modern precedent. In December 1998, following losses in the midterm elections that prompted then-Speaker Newt Gingrich to resign, his successor-in-waiting, Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston, stunned his colleagues by announcing on the floor of the House that he, too, would be stepping down. Then as now, House Republicans effectively lost two speakers in a matter of weeks.
The atmosphere was no less toxic, but there was a key difference. At that time, the strife was driven by personal peccadilloes. Voters rebuked Gingrich for overreaching on an impeachment pegged to then-President Bill Clinton’s marital infidelity; Livingston stepped down when Hustler magazine revealed he was guilty of the same sin.
These days, on the other hand, the GOP is riven by a much more definitional debate. It’s one that’s vexed the party for the duration of the Obama era, though it’s arguably grown more pronounced this year. Heading into the 2014 midterms, Congressional Republican chiefs sold their donor class on the notion that flipping the Senate and expanding their reach in the House would allow the business-friendly, establishmentarian wing of the party to reassert itself. No more shutting down the government or flirting with a debt default in the name of doomed-to-fail protests, they pledged. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the day after the election, Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised a sort of “crawl before we walk” approach: after years of infighting, Republicans would restart humbly, demonstrating they could fulfill the most basic tasks of governing to prove worthy of the responsibility voters had just handed them.
Republican leaders in Congress knew they needed to clear that hurdle, low as it may be, if the party wanted any hope of recapturing the White House. McCarthy himself made the case the week before the midterms, telling a roomful of Long Island donors, “If we don’t capture the House stronger, and the Senate, and prove we could govern, there won’t be a Republican president in 2016.”
By that standard, the GOP’s presidential dreams aren’t looking so good. Boehner threw in the towel two weeks ago in the face of a new insurrection from the rightwing fringe (this time, they want to shutter the government over federal support for Planned Parenthood). That group may have forced McCarthy, Boehner’s handpicked successor, from the race by throwing their backing behind little-known Florida Rep. Daniel Webster and demanding an impossible price for any support for McCarthy once the vote reached the full House. Asked by National Review on Thursday afternoon if the chamber is governable, McCarthy replied, bracingly, by suggesting the worst is yet to come. “I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.”
The 1998 struggle atop the House GOP conference was brief, contained, and relatively bloodless. A half-year later, Republicans were rallying around Texas Gov. George W. Bush — the picture of the establishment — as their best hope for retaking the White House after two terms in exile. Now, Bush’s brother is languishing at fifth in the polls. He’s running well behind a guy who dismisses evolution as a lie promoted by the devil — and even further behind Donald Trump. Both scenes will change. Republicans will find a compromise candidate to lead them in the House and eventually one to carry their standard into the 2016 presidential election. Beating Democrats amid an ongoing civil war is another matter.