Friends don’t let friends run for Speaker of the House. Perhaps that should be the tongue-in-cheek warning to Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Steve Scalise (R-LA) as they seek to succeed the ousted Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as leader of the House of Representatives. Ask Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, John Boehner, Paul Ryan and McCarthy, the five Republicans to hold that most powerful position in Congress over the last 30 years, and they will tell you the speakership became, for all of them, a vale of tears.
Gingrich did something in 1994 that no Republican had done for four decades, leading a conservative revolt to seize control of the House. But he was unable to manage power as effectively as he gained it, and after two government shutdowns and an ethics-related reprimand, he resigned as speaker just three years into his tenure. Hastert followed Gingrich and served for eight years before running into his own ethics issues and being charged as a sex offender who paid hush money to his victim after leaving office. Boehner, the quintessential establishment Republican, was driven to distraction by the burgeoning Tea Party movement. Ryan had been a widely respected policy wonk, a thought leader whose popularity tanked after becoming speaker, a role requiring constant negotiation and compromise, which were ill-suited to his skill set. And so a promising political career that included the number-two spot on the 2012 GOP presidential ticket was derailed.
Job One for the New Speaker of the House – Tamp Down the Rebellion
The narrative in Swamp circles following the “Capitol coup” that unseated McCarthy has largely been that the House GOP is now splintered, rudderless, devoid of leadership. But while eight members of the party’s right flank joined with every House Democrat to boot McCarthy to the curb, there were another 210 Republicans who generally backed the ex-speaker’s agenda and appreciated his prolific fundraising and high-profile leadership enough to oppose his ouster. The gaggle of McCarthy opponents famously opposed him from the jump, oh-so-reluctantly voting for him on a 15th ballot by demanding – and receiving – a poison pill, namely the ability of a single member to initiate an action to remove the speaker. So to most observers, it was only a matter of time before McCarthy would be overthrown. But does this mean the GOP House conference writ large is irreparably divided, as giddy Democrats and their allies in big media are reporting?
Not necessarily. In fact, a case could be made that, when the hysteria dies down and the dust settles, the party will actually be strengthened under the leadership of either Jordan or Scalise, both of whom are by most accounts widely respected and admired by their colleagues. Jordan, the 59-year-old ninth-term congressman from Ohio, is a fearless fighter who founded the House Freedom Caucus and has been a favorite of conservatives for years, most recently as head of the House Judiciary Committee investigating the transgressions of the Biden family. The 57-year-old Scalise is a veteran of congressional wars who entered Congress one year after Jordan, in 2008, and has risen through the ranks to become House Majority Leader. And, of course, he was famously martyred after being shot by a left-wing extremist at a practice for the 2017 congressional baseball game and nearly losing his life.
What the gang of eight headed by Florida’s Matt Gaetz (hilariously headlined “Gaetz of Hell” by the New York Post) did was what their counterparts on the left, the AOC-led Squad, ultimately refused to do, namely persist in their demands. Sensing the opportunity afforded them by virtue of their party’s tenuous majority, the rogue Republicans would not back down and were willing to exact the ultimate price from McCarthy. In sharp contrast, when Democrats held a similar razor-thin majority following the 2020 election, Nancy Pelosi was able to subdue the threat from the left flank of her party and hold Democrats together as a bloc. If Republicans had built the kind of durable majority in the 2022 midterms that was widely expected, Gaetz and company would be mere gadflies. But now they hold the levers of power and are bound to demand the same concessions from the next speaker that they did from the beleaguered Kevin McCarthy. The only question is whether they will be called heroes or traitors for doing so.