When the famed conservative icon William F. Buckley ran for mayor of New York City in 1965, he uttered one of the most amusing lines in American political history. Asked what he would do if his long-shot candidacy actually succeeded and he won the election, he promptly replied, “Demand a recount.” Based on their behavior in the utter debacle that unfolded on Capitol Hill Jan. 3, it seems as if the Republicans elected to the majority in the newly minted 118th Congress might effectively be asking for the same thing. But this time only Democrats are laughing. The spectacle created by the GOP’s self-inflicted wounds and disarray – the seemingly unbridgeable gap between mainstream leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and the party’s activist wing, naked for all the world to see – was stunning.
As futile voting for Speaker of the House carried on through three ballots, the obvious question hung in the air like a dense fog on a still day: If this party can’t agree – or even come close to agreeing – on a leader, how will they ever be able to govern? And how will they make the case for continuing their control of the House in 2024?
While much attention is focused on how to win over the never-Kevin McCarthy set – 19 strong on the first ballot and steadfast in opposition thereafter – how about the more than 200 who voted for him, and the dozens who have pledged to vote only for McCarthy no matter how many ballots are required? Representing more than 90% of the caucus, will they agree to effectively cede power to a gaggle of conservative hardliners bent on meaningful reform to a system most would agree is broken? When an irresistible force meets an unmovable object, something’s got to give.
Whither Kevin McCarthy?
In the run-up to the opening session of the new legislature, reports were rampant that five original never-McCarthy House members had recently been joined by at least a dozen other Republicans in hardening, not softening, their opposition to the long-presumed speaker. The reports proved to be accurate. And the problem was exacerbated by the optics of Kevin McCarthy acting so confident of ultimate victory that he began moving into the speaker’s office freshly vacated by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi – before the voting commenced. But McCarthy was nowhere near election, with the principled and unyielding opposition to him most eloquently expressed by Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA):
“We’ve worked in good faith for months to change the status quo. At nearly every turn, we’ve been sidelined or resisted by McCarthy … In his 14 years in Republican Leadership, McCarthy has repeatedly failed to demonstrate any desire to meaningfully change the status quo in Washington … On New Year’s Eve, at the 11th Hour, after dragging his feet for months, McCarthy presented a vague ultimatum lacking in specifics and substance … when we provided specific names willing to serve on each [House committee] – as he requested – he balked … We asked for firm commitments on concrete policies [and] to promise votes on (1) a balanced budget, (2) the Fair Tax Act, (3) the Texas Border Plan, and (4) term limits for Members of Congress, he refused.
“We requested transparent, accountable votes on individual earmarks that would require two-thirds support to pass and to ensure that all amendments to cut spending would be allowed floor consideration. He dismissed it.
“We demanded that he cease his efforts to defeat competitive conservative candidates in open Republican primaries. He denied it.
“Kevin McCarthy had an opportunity to be Speaker of the House. He rejected it.”
Things broke down so quickly that, after the first ballot, GOP Party Chair Ronna McDaniel decried her party’s holdouts and openly admitted on Fox News how embarrassing this spectacle is for the Republican Party. Democrats enjoying the show are sure to pounce on the fact that this is the first time in an even 100 years – that is the last 50 Congresses – that the majority party failed to produce a speaker on the first ballot. Of course, it could be worse. This process may already have gone three rounds, with many more possible, but in 1856, it took 133 ballots to finally elect a speaker.
The message this is sending to the American people is that the Republicans of 2023 are the gang that can’t shoot straight. First, they failed to achieve the widely forecast comfortable majority that would have made all this internal wrangling moot. Then, even after serving as minority leader for the last four years, and after campaigning and fundraising hard for his members in the 2022 midterms — the Kevin McCarthy Super PAC raised $238 million – the prospective speaker fell a whopping 30 votes short in the first headcount of the GOP House caucus immediately following the election. McCarthy was then forced to make significant concessions to the holdouts, including the right of any five members to call for the removal of the speaker – but none of it moved the needle. After all that, McCarthy three times failed to accumulate anywhere near the 218 votes needed to give him the gavel.
In the old days of brokered political conventions, when a front-runner failed to close the deal on the first ballot, his candidacy would generally weaken with each successive ballot. And sure enough, Kevin McCarthy failed to gain any additional votes as balloting continued, and he actually lost one vote on the third ballot. If momentum continues in the same direction, the GOP may soon be forced to toss McCarthy overboard and initiate a desperate search for a compromise candidate who can somehow satisfy both a large mainstream majority and a small but determined band of rebels.
These House Republicans have tripped over their own feet right out of the starting gate and will not get a second chance to make a first impression. If they fail to get their act together soon – very soon – and unite behind a single leader, the GOP of 2023, including its prospective presidential candidates, will undoubtedly see their hopes for 2024 diminish. After all, politics in Washington are subject to the same reality once articulated about baseball in New York by the great American philosopher Yogi Berra: It gets late early around here.
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