October 23, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The next speaker ‘will face an ungovernable party and House’
First, Boehner, then Ryan, then McCarthy. “Rest assured,” says Norman Ornstein, an authority on the US Congress, “it will happen again!”
Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan’s bid for speaker ended suddenly Friday when the Republican conference dropped him like a hot rock. All the bullying, threats and bluster failed to persuade a critical faction of “moderates.” Nine Republicans have since emerged to vie for the job. Of those, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer is the most prominent.
These nine represent the third time the Republicans have gone through this since the historic Oct. 3 tossing of Kevin McCarthy. The House has been paralyzed since. A government shutdown looms. Wars in Ukraine and Israel need attention. Yet the Republican majority can’t do the most fundamental thing of any majority – pick a leader. Anything could happen, but it looks like a new speaker any time soon is a long shot.
“The encouragement of threats and violence, not always direct, is a part of the rightwing culture. Playing on fear and anger is the core playbook for the party. Many more House Republicans who opposed Jordan have had their families face abuse and death threats. Bad things will happen.”
While it’s natural to associate the chaos with Donald Trump, the roots of the Republican disorder are deeper. Thomas Mann, a traditional liberal, and Norman Ornstein, a traditional conservative, wrote what I have come to think of as the Ur-text all the way back in April 2012. In “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem,” they write that:
“We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”
“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” they added. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Who’s to blame? Before Donald Trump, there was Grover Norquist, the anti-tax evangelist who made it verboten for any Republican to talk about budgets in any responsible way. They could talk about cuts, but never revenues. And before Norquist, there was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who went to war with the institution itself.
Gingrich and Norquist created conditions by which dysfunction is not a matter of both sides, Mann and Ornstein said. “When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”
Mann and Ornstein’s piece was prescient. The Republicans were the problem before Trump, Russian sabotage, the impeachments, the insurrection, the pandemic – and before the “insurgent outliers” narrowly won the House only to succumb a year later to the chaos and disorder that brought them there. Recently, I asked Ornstein if his assessment had changed. No, he suggested, except it’s gotten worse.
JS: Kevin McCarthy was the first speaker to be voted out of his job. As an authority on the Congress, can you explain what happened? Can you talk about the role of the Democrats in knocking him off? Did they punish bad behavior or are they responsible for the current mess?
NO: The Democrats did not knock off McCarthy, despite what McCarthy, [former Ohio governor] John Kasich and other House Republicans have said. It is not the job of the minority to save the majority from itself. McCarthy lost for the same reason he was bypassed for the speakership when John Boehner left — he is untrustworthy, amoral and unprincipled. But remember this process of bouncing leaders is not new for Republicans. It happened to Boehner and Paul Ryan before McCarthy. Rest assured, it will happen again!
JS: The Republicans have been aligned with society’s Very Worst People for some time. They use threats, intimidation and violence to get what they want when democratic politics fails them. Some are now saying that that alliance is backfiring against the Republicans. For instance, Iowa Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks received death threats after voting against Jim Jordan for speaker of the House. Thoughts?
NO: Through Trump, talk radio, Fox and social media, the encouragement of threats and violence, not always direct, is a part of the rightwing culture. Playing on fear and anger is the core playbook for the party. Many more House Republicans who opposed Jordan have had their families face abuse and death threats. Bad things will happen.
JS: I have the good fortune of teaching a class on American politics. I assign “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.” You blame equally Gingrich and Norquist. Would you blame them equally today?
NO: Newt drove the tribalization. Grover drove the policy radicalism. But that makes Newt worse.
JS: On a related note, does Jordan’s failure to take the speakership suggest that the trend of Republicans going to war with the institutions of democracy, which started with Gingrich, has finally reached a limit?
NO: It is not clear to me what comes next. Most likely, there will be an alternative candidate, like House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, who is less pugnacious, combative and corrupt than Jim Jordan is. But whoever gets the post will face an ungovernable party and House.
JS: The parties are different for many reasons, including their respective attitudes toward criminal conduct. Trump is indicted. The Republicans rally. US Senator Bob Menendez is indicted. The Democrats run away from him. In what way are these attitudes indicative of their respective attitudes toward democracy?
NO: Many Senate Democrats have called for Menendez to resign. No Senate Republican has called out Senate Republicans Mike Lee, Ron Johnson or other Republicans who were knee-deep in the events of January 6, 2021. Republicans are different now than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Moral stances are now subordinate to winning.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.