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What's the Point of This?

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

In a few hours, the House will reconvene and attempt to select a Speaker for the second straight day.  Yesterday, Kevin McCarthy never came close to the majority he needed to assume that office and title, losing 19 GOP votes on the first and second ballots, then 20 votes on the third.  Democrat Hakeem Jeffries finished in first place in each round.  Amid uncertainty, acrimony and chaos, the House adjourned by a voice vote.  The new Republican lower chamber 'majority' -- which is nominal, not functional -- cannot begin any work until a Speaker has been elected.  Some scattered thoughts on yesterday's embarrassing yet unsurprising fiasco:


I'm not exactly a pom-pom-waving Kevin McCarthy fan.  He seems like a nice guy, and I've met him a few times, but I have not been bowled over by his principled or decisive leadership during his tenure fronting the opposition.  My criticisms of the anti-McCarthy contingent are neither a symptom of my deep-seated support for the man, nor are they meant as a stirring defense of his political honor.  I've never been convinced he'd be a terribly effective Speaker.  But I'm also not convinced any Republican could be a terribly effective Speaker in this Congress.  The majority margin is so thin that any small handful of GOP members have the power to effectively veto anything they want to, on repeat, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop them.  Winning a bigger majority would have afforded leadership more breathing room, obviously, but voters made different choices.  And yesterday, several handfuls of holdouts -- disproportionately representing a faction of the party that exemplifies why many independents couldn't bring themselves to vote red in November -- flexed that muscle.  

Fair enough.  That's their prerogative.  But to what end?  There's a case to be made that McCarthy would be a middling-to-lousy Speaker.  But he also won a leadership vote within the conference by a landslide.  Many of the McCarthy objectors are demanding that no bills come to the floor this Congress that lack majority support among the majority caucus.  But in their very first acts of the new Congress, they're dramatically undermining the will of a super-majority of that same caucus. To be clear, the likelihood of a Democrat becoming Speaker remains quite remote, despite these dysfunctional machinations.  The possibility of a centrist Speaker, installed with Democratic and Republican votes (certainly someone who would enrage the Freedom Caucus crowd), is also remote, but slightly less so.  I can understand why some right-wing Republicans would want to use their clout to foil McCarthy's designs on the gavel, but what's the plan here?  What or who is the viable alternative?  The 20 or so holdouts are "winning" by thwarting McCarthy thus far, but they've been out-voted 10-to-1 on each ballot by their fellow Republicans, many of whom are furious over the humiliating resulting mess.  Even Marjorie Taylor Greene is lobbing rhetorical bombs at the "destructionists," for crying out loud.


If there seemed to be a constructive endgame beyond 'no,' I might have more of an appetite for some of this.  But does such a plan actually exist?  Yesterday's experience suggests not.  Some have floated the idea of putting up Steve Scalise as a potential consensus-building alternative, but would he fare much better than McCarthy with the holdouts?  Any better?  And would he even allow his hat to be seriously tossed into the ring for consideration so long as McCarthy is still fighting for the gig?  To the hardest-core 'Never Kevin' clique, who have not been satisfied with the many concessions they've been offered (based on their own demands), Scalise is also part of "the problem," or whatever.  On the other side of the coin, a rabble-rousing right-winger isn't going to become Speaker because he or she wouldn't be palatable to the GOP 'majority-makers' who face competitive races in districts that aren't ruby red.  Leaders need a good deal of cross-factional buy-in in order to be effective.

This brings me back to a previous point: Could anyone really build consensus among people who seemingly have no interest in consensus?  And who don't really want to govern?  As an ideological conservative, I'm not horrified by the notion of a do-nothing House.  The primary function of this majority, given the reality of a Democratic White House and Senate, is to stop the one-party Democratic agenda in its tracks.  Saying 'no' will be, for the most part, good enough for me.  But many 'normal' voters expect the people they send into government to govern.  Some gridlock and checks and balances are acceptable, if not expected.  But nihilistic standstill is not what these voters want, and quite a few of them have proven themselves reluctant to empower the current national Republican Party right now, even as they actively disapprove of the other party.  House Republicans would help themselves by demonstrating some ability to be serious custodians of the limited power with which they've been entrusted.


The opening hours of their technical majority suggest that they will probably struggle or outright fail to do so, repeatedly, over the next two years -- no matter who their designated leader might be.  Being in leadership can sometimes feel like a thankless job, I'm sure, but these days, I wonder if it's more like a nightmare job.  I understand the allure of the power, the title, etc., but who really wants to do this right now?  One counterpoint may be that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were able to do quite a lot with microscopic majorities over the past few years, which is true.  But they had conferences that wanted to do things, and members who (with extremely rare and notable exceptions) fell in line, with few or no dissenters.  A very small majority can be a governing majority if its membership has the will to govern and the capacity to be led.  

First impressions matter, as they say, and the first impression House Republicans have given voters following their underwhelming November showing is that sufficient numbers of them lack the will to govern and the capacity to be led.  Perhaps this will all get resolved in relatively short order and Team Red will defy expectations through 2024.  Maybe a new Speaker will harness unexpected goodwill and churn out a string of legislative victories.  I'm just not sure I'd bet the farm on that proposition, especially after what we saw on day one.  What happens the first time 'must-pass' legislation must pass, but cannot, at least without votes from the opposition?  Electing a Speaker is comparatively elementary, simple stuff.  Again, it's conceivable that this new House majority will end up surpassing the low bar many have set for it.  I'd argue it's more conceivable that it will careen from one impotent exasperation to the next, featuring internecine squabbles and lots of yelling.  


Some of this may be mostly empty bravado, but so long as there are half-a-dozen or more House Republicans who'd rather "fight" than meaningfully win, the party will do a lot of futile fighting, and much less winning than they could or should -- sort of like what happened in November.  This is preposterous stuff coming from supposed 'True Conservatives' who hurl 'RINO' as an epithet, at the drop of a hat:

I'll leave you with a reminder that while they may be more disciplined and united (often around the galvanizing 'principle' of inexorably higher taxing and spending), these Democrats' self-serving and self-righteous 'country over party,' democracy-first' conceit is, and always has been, an unserious fraud:


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