WASHINGTON – The chaos on Capitol Hill would be entertaining if the consequences weren’t so serious.
The speaker of the House is second in line to the presidency and since the founding of the Republic, the position has been one of the most important in government, key to national security and domestic tranquility.
Now a band of about three dozen conservative hard-liners, exploiting the partisan divide, has essentially hijacked the chamber, reducing the speaker’s role to that of a figurehead subservient to their wishes.
This isn’t a leadership battle; it’s a coup.
The real question, then, is not why Kevin McCarthy withdrew from the race. It is why anybody would want this thankless job.
John Boehner, after finally getting the prize he desired, spent the next 4 1 / 2years in misery, perpetually badmouthed and badgered by the “Freedom Caucus” and other conservative malcontents. When he finally announced his retirement last month, he did it singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
Boehner’s understudy, Eric Cantor, would have been speaker today – but his position in leadership made him a fat target for conservatives, and he was ousted in a primary in his own congressional district.
Now McCarthy has been deposed by a conservative rebellion before he even got to hold the speaker’s gavel.
And Paul Ryan, the man best suited for the job, says he doesn’t want to be speaker. Can anyone blame him? If he were to take on the assignment, there’s every reason to believe that within months somebody would be drawing a chalk outline around him, too.
The next speaker – whoever that may be – will have to pick between two poisons: Defy the few dozen conservative zealots who hold the balance of power in the House and thereby lose his gavel, or surrender to the conservatives and take the Republican Party (and perhaps the country) into a quagmire of default and shutdown.
“I feel good about the decision,” McCarthy told reporters Thursday, minutes after withdrawing from the race. His smile seemed genuine enough, and he made no effort to conceal his reasons.
“There’s calls into the districts,” he explained, referring to the efforts by conservative groups to depose him before he ever took the throne. “I don’t want to make voting for speaker a tough one. I don’t want to go to the floor and win with 220 votes.” (A bare House majority is 218, and there are 247 Republicans.)
Even if Ryan or another figure can temporarily unite the caucus, the conservatives’ demands will inevitably lead to chaos. They’re seeking not just showdowns over spending but procedural changes that would bring anarchy, including unlimited freedom to amend legislation, a ban on legislation that doesn’t have the support of a majority of GOP members, and a refusal to take up compromise legislation worked out by the Senate.
For all the grousing about Boehner cutting deals with Democrats, the outgoing speaker often yielded to the conservative holdouts. They got their shutdown, and they got their Benghazi select committee – which McCarthy, in an unwise moment of honesty last week, acknowledged was for the purpose of damaging Hillary Clinton politically. Before departing, Boehner is making good on a promise to give conservatives the Planned Parenthood select committee they desire, even though three committees were already investigating the group and the chairman of one of them said he had no evidence that the group had broken the law. Call it the Planned Benghazihood committee.
Boehner often had little choice: With Democrats voting as a bloc, the loss of just 30 Republicans would bring legislation to a halt. Boehner occasionally defied the malcontents, but he eventually chose to quit rather than to seek a coalition with Democrats that would sideline the conservative holdouts.
If Boehner wasn’t strong enough to do that, it’s hard to imagine that a successor could. McCarthy – who gave his benefactor a grade of B-minus in a Fox News appearance – clearly was terrified of the hard-liners.
For good reason: They’re a rough crowd. Among the many tactics employed against McCarthy in recent days was a letter from Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina saying a candidate should withdraw “if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress.” This was widely interpreted as targeting McCarthy.
The only thing that will likely end the thuggish tactics is public anger – and punishment at the polls – when the conservative hard-liners are blamed for shutdowns, defaults or whatever else results from their coup.
And who would want to preside over that?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.