Opinion: House GOP needs political maturity. What are the chances?
Israeli diplomat Abba Eben famously said that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Watching events in the Middle East over the last two weeks, that quote might seem newly relevant.
But it seems even more fitting for the House GOP.
At a time of international and domestic turmoil, with an unpopular incumbent Democratic president languishing in the polls, and the Republican presidential primary dominated by a many times-indicted election denier, it doesn’t take a Solon to realize it would be a good idea for the Republican House majority to strike a collective pose of reassuring competence.
But they chose to go another way.
As of Monday, nine House Republicans had announced they would seek the job of House speaker. This came after weeks of turmoil launched by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and seven Republican colleagues who voted to oust Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) out of spite. In the aftermath, Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) beat Gaetz’s preferred candidate, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, in a Republican election to replace McCarthy. But Jordan’s allies refused to back Scalise, who quickly withdrew his name from the race. Then, after three rounds of voting, Jordan failed to win the election and withdrew.
Jordan’s campaign for the job was remarkable in its hypocrisy. A career congressional bomb-thrower who made a name for himself making life miserable for party leadership, Jordan suddenly embraced the virtues of compromise. He reportedly offered to back a vote on Ukraine aid — anathema to his bloc — and offered moderate New York Republicans a hike in federal tax exemptions for state and local taxes to win over reluctant members. Of course, Jordan was playing good cop while his allies were playing bad cop, using conservative media to whip up political intimidation and even threats to force their capitulation.
As embarrassing as the ongoing turmoil is for Republicans, it was the right call to block Jordan. The idea that 5% of the caucus can impudently defenestrate one speaker, while 95% must support the wreckers’ choice for the “good of the party” is preposterous from every angle.
Still, Republicans could have looked at Jordan’s case of sudden-onset political maturity as a learning opportunity, to appreciate how politics — particularly congressional politics — is supposed to work. Politically, speakers are supposed to smooth out differences within their coalition for the good of the whole party. Majorities are always diverse. That’s why speakers are supposed to be traffic cops, not ideological firebrands. The ultimate goal is to advance responsible legislation that ideally leads to expanding the majority.
It was adorable that Jordan and his allies suddenly realized that winning coalitions require internal compromises for the good of the party.
But what Jordan and his allies are still incapable of grasping is that their broader approach to politics is bad for the party and therefor bad for conservatism and America (assuming you think that America needs conservative policies).
Going back more than a decade, the firebrands, mostly from safe seats, have put their own interests ahead of the party’s. Their stunts and schemes — forcing government shutdowns, backing Donald Trump’s fraudulent efforts to steal the election — make it more difficult for Republicans in competitive districts to win election or reelection. They don’t much care if the GOP loses control of Congress. They’re happy to run up the political bill, knowing that moderates will be stuck with the check.
Currently, Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) is the speaker pro tempore, or acting speaker. He got the job thanks to a continuity-in-government rule passed after 9/11 that requires every speaker to designate someone to fill the job in case the speaker is incapacitated. McHenry, a sober-minded and responsible legislator, was McCarthy’s pick, and to McHenry’s credit, he doesn’t want the job, which is why he’s the best suited for it.
Also, to his credit, McHenry has refused to assume the full powers of the speaker because he doesn’t want to set a precedent for an unelected speaker to abuse the role. It’s the right instinct, even though the law isn’t clear on that question. Why designate an emergency speaker powerless to handle an emergency?
McHenry has said he’s open to an expanded role, but only if the House formally votes for him to do it. Ideally, all Republicans would come to their senses and simply elect him speaker. And even if he needed some Democratic votes to end the chaos, it would be the grown-up thing to do. Which is why it’s likely Republicans will miss yet another opportunity to be a governing party.
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