How will the GOP speakership drama play out?

I have no idea how the Kevin McCarthy drama will play out, but apparently even his team doesn’t expect him to get there on the first few ballots. Then, they hope to grind down the opposition over the course of repeated votes.

McCarthy would be an imperfect but fine selection to be the next speaker of the House. Whatever you or I think of McCarthy, House Republicans who don’t want him to be speaker have yet to put forth a viable alternative. Back in November, former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Andy Biggs of Arizona, launched a protest challenge; McCarthy won, 188 to 31. A bit more than 85 percent of House Republicans are unified behind the man who’s been House deputy whip, majority whip, then majority leader, and then minority leader. McCarthy is the ultimate known quantity, a figure almost every House Republican has worked with over the past decade.

I get why today’s vote matters so much to McCarthy, and why it matters so much to a potential (currently reluctant) alternative like Steve Scalise. It’s a little tougher to get a sense of why this fight matters so much to the average conservative or Republican. It’s not like there is an intense ideological division between McCarthy and the alternative options. (Scalise’s lifetime ACU rating is 92 out of 100; McCarthy’s is 84 out of 100.) At least for now, and at least publicly, Scalise doesn’t want to be speaker, he wants to be House majority leader. And no, House Republicans are not going to make Elise Stefanik or Jim Jordan the next speaker, and no, they’re not going to pick a nonmember to be speaker.

It’s very hard to beat something with nothing. Until a House Republican who is popular with his or her colleagues expresses a desire to be speaker, this infighting is just going in circles, with McCarthy falling just short of 218 votes.

McCarthy’s agenda, laid out in the “Commitment to America” unveiled during the 2022 midterm election, is fine and brims with mainstream conservative proposals and messaging bills that will likely die in the Democratic Senate or face a Biden veto. Any alternative to McCarthy would pursue a similar agenda. The sooner Republicans resolve who the next speaker will be, the sooner they can turn their focus to getting rules changed and bills passed.

This feels like a lot of horse-trading over rank and ego, with little consequences for what actually gets done in the House this cycle.

House speaker is a thankless job of herding cats. Okay, McCarthy is not a visionary, and he has a history of tripping up in ways that help Democrats. But it is not for vision that a party looks to the speaker; in our times, when political parties have lost much of their power, vision is more about media messaging than partisan discipline. And Nancy Pelosi, whose “master strategist” reputation has always been exaggerated, has a long history of gaffes helpful to her adversaries.

Whether the next speaker were to be Kevin McCarthy, or, say, a Newt Gingrich-type visionary, a Paul Ryan-type in the GOP establishment mold, a MAGA champion like Jim Jordan, a Joseph Gurney Cannon-type insider capable of iron-fisted control, or a more ineffective leader (many have fit that category), the Republican problem would still be the same: the narrowness of the majority due to underperformance in the midterms. No speaker, no matter how able, could fix that. No speaker, for example, would have any control over the George Santos debacle, which is apt to make the majority even narrower and more tenuous.

At least some of McCarthy’s most implacable critics sound silly to me when inveighing against him over the midterm failure, given the eggshells they tip toe around on regarding Donald Trump — who goes pretty much unmentioned, though he had far more to do with the failure. I get the sense, though, that that’s more about TV facetime and its partner, fundraising — theater that has precious little to do with legislating. The real-life bottom line is that you can’t beat something with nothing. The “Never McCarthys” do not have a viable alternative candidate. As Jim observes, that should be the end of the matter.

You don’t have to love Kevin McCarthy to conclude that, for conservatives and Republicans, he’s preferable to Hakeem Jeffries, the New York Democrat and anticipated minority leader.  Even if the McCarthy critics were right regarding the handful of gripes they have about him, and they are surely right about some things, you need to have a Republican in the speaker’s slot to get legislation to the floor and to effectively block radical progressive agenda that thrives under President Biden.

McCarthy would fill that bill, and there is reason to think he’d do it better now that he’s been made to sweat to get the job. That’s as much as his opposition could reasonably have hoped for. Everything else is just performative. But the problem is: The futile anti-McCarthy tantrum risks the effectiveness of the majority from day one. If the first thing Republicans do after finally getting the majority is demonstrate themselves incapable even of electing a speaker, what good are they? Why would voters trust them with the majority again?

Democrats from AOC-style lefties to Seth Moulton-type moderates would know that, for their somewhat varied purposes, they basically just need a Democrat in the speaker’s post. No matter how they felt about Jeffries or [insert name of House Democrat, any Democrat], they’d get in line. Never in a million years would they risk the possibility that their infighting could cause a member of the Republican minority to get the gig.

As is too often the case, I’m left quoting 1962 Mets manager Casey Stengel: Can’t anybody here play this game?

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