Republicans‘ Aborted Start in Congress Lays Bare Party’s Weaknesses

Opponents of the ruling Democrats boastfully proclaim that change is coming to Washington, but they can’t even agree on a leader. U.S. Republicans have a long way to go before they are capable of governing.

The self-destruction by Republicans in Congress probably offers some satisfaction for one woman who, starting this year, is just a back-bencher: Democrat Nancy Pelosi. The embarrassment of the failed attempts by Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy to win election as speaker of the House of Representatives shines a spotlight on how skillfully Pelosi carried out that role for eight years. The former California speaker could be obstinate, insistent on polarization, and sometimes followed a leftward course that led her far from the political middle, but she was a brilliant power broker in the third highest ranking position in U.S. government.

A Bunch of Tragic Figures

Leading the House of Representatives is like herding cats. It requires keeping one’s own faction in line using an alternating mix of charm, concession, legislative favors and serious threats. Pelosi had an outstanding talent for this role; McCarthy, in contrast, lacks the same finesse. He is by no means the only failure in his party. The Republicans have had just four House speakers in the last 50 years, and all are remembered as tragic figures.

Newt Gingrich miscalculated with senseless impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton and was forced to resign after an electoral rout. His successor, Dennis Hastert, carried out the role of speaker for years without much splash but later landed in prison after it was revealed that he had sexually abused a schoolchild. John Boehner, President Barack Obama’s opponent in the House of Representatives starting in 2011, was a weak figure who did not know how to rein in the party’s radical wing. His successor, the intellectually brilliant Paul Ryan, resigned the role of speaker in 2018 in frustration, disgusted by the primitive, petty infighting in Washington and the volatility of “fellow” party member Donald Trump.

Still, the aborted start by Republicans now also attests to a lively culture of democracy. Party heads, especially in Europe, love bossing their sheep around; those who deviate from the party line can assume that they will face harsh sanctions. That is much more difficult in the American system, where party leadership is intentionally conceptualized to be a weak institution, and the primary goal of individual members of Congress is to maintain majority favor in their election district. The dissenters within the party now are conveying above everything the dissatisfaction of many voters with the loftiness of Washington’s political caste who, for instance, see no problem with approving massive budget deficits with minimal debate.

For Republicans with a national strategy, this insubordination is, of course, a problem. If the party continuously stands in its own way, it discredits itself. The outcome of last November’s midterm elections indicated that America’s voters wanted to end Democratic control of federal government and use the House of Representatives as a counterbalance to Democratic President Joe Biden. But how is that supposed to happen if the Republicans can’t even manage to complete task No. 1, electing their own leader? And how does the party thus intend to prove that it is capable of governing and present itself as an alternative in the 2024 presidential election?

McCarthy Was Beleaguered from the Start

Republicans can hardly afford a repeat of the historic speaker election of 1856, which required 133 rounds of voting held over two months. Cool heads will presumably prevail sooner or later. Whether McCarthy does end up winning election as speaker in multiple rounds remains questionable.* He would have been a beleaguered speaker from the start. He even had to concede to party rebels on a new rule that at any time in the future, five representatives can petition for a no-confidence vote against the current speaker.** That’s a recipe for rendering the speaker hostage to internal party splinter groups and thus rendering him prey to blackmail, because given the party’s slim majority, only five dissatisfied Republicans are enough, together with the Democrats, to topple a speaker.**

Like a magnifying glass, the drama in the Capitol lays bare the Republican Party’s weaknesses. They are hungry to stop the Democrats and to correct the left’s weak points. But they are divided into groups that cannot agree on any successful approach. The problem is not limited to Trump, from whose shadow the party has still not been able to wrest itself. Its roots are deeper, and could also become a handicap during the 2024 presidential election.

*Editor’s Note: Kevin McCarthy was elected speaker of the House in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, after 15 rounds of voting over three days.

**Editor’s Note: Subsequently, McCarthy agreed that a single representative could petition for a no-confidence vote.

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