Trouble with House Speaker Election: Populism Is Losing in America

The election of the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives is challenging because the party doesn’t know whether to return to its traditional roots or follow Donald Trump’s vision of destroying American democracy.

This was supposed to be a triumphant day for Republicans. For the first time since 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would be replaced, and it would be by Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. His political supporters assumed this would be a prelude to winning back the White House — preferably with Donald Trump.

Yet the outcome of Tuesday’s vote was not clear. Republicans hold 222 seats in the lower house of Congress, more than the 218 minimum required for an absolute majority. Republicans had dreamed of a much larger lead over Democrats in the November midterms. Didn’t Republicans stand to benefit from from high prices caused by the war in Ukraine, or the seemingly poor condition of 80-year-old Joe Biden?

Yet, McCarthy could not even count on such a slim majority. Although he has negotiated with several members of the “Freedom Caucus,” its leader, Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, said on Tuesday that he does not feel bound by anything. In his view, even such concessions as McCarthy’s veiled agreement to block aid to Ukraine or a promise that he would submit to a no-confidence vote if called for by five representatives were not enough.

Something much more profound lies behind this procedural clash: the Republican Party’s future. Will it return to its roots, as moderates who support McCarthy wish, or will it become an obedient instrument in the hands of Trump, someone a House select committee has openly accused of intentionally destroying American democracy just to remain in power?

This is not just about lofty ideals; it’s about power. In the November election, Democrats retained a majority in the Senate and prevented a catastrophe in the House of Representatives. It turned out that for Americans, the rule of law is almost as important as rising prices and falling incomes. If Republicans don’t heed that expectation, little may come of their plans to deprive Biden of a second term.

McCarthy plans to fight till the end. He wants a repeat vote for the first time since 1923, even if he loses in the first round. Republicans have no other obvious candidate. If they start looking for one, the rift in the party might prove to be even deeper.

*Editor’s Note: As of Jan. 4, McCarthy has lost six ballots for speaker of the House.

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