Thursday, October 08, 2015

Kevin McCarthy and What's Next for the House Republicans

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)
The House Republicans are in an impossible situation right now, one that they have been heading for for years.  The news (very recent, like a few minutes ago recent) that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the heir apparent to John Boehner's Speakership will not run for the position sets off what might be the biggest unknown in modern political history.  We've had elections before where we didn't have a frontrunner, but the question before the House now is completely open-ended.  Everyone figured that after a ballot or two McCarthy would scrounge together the votes for the majority, but that clearly wasn't going to be the case.  In recent days, about 40 members of the House's conservative wing endorsed Rep. Daniel Webster, and considering that McCarthy has 247 members to rely upon, without forty people he would either have to get some of them to come back to his side or rely upon Democrats to make up the 11-vote deficit (and that's assuming that other Republicans like Jason Chaffetz wouldn't peel off support).

I say this is a long time coming mostly because the House Republicans have been on borrowed time from a meltdown since the government shutdown.  When John Boehner had to basically keep his Speakership by throwing his party's goodwill under the bus (and shutting down the government, a widely-panned move by the majority of the populace and something that the Democrats have hounded him about since), he essentially showed that he couldn't bend the House in the way it needed to be for him to firmly grasp control.  Boehner had two options at that point-either find a way to govern in a truly unprecedented, bipartisan manner (giving Democrats more say in the minority than the Republicans had received when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker), or consistently run the government at the last minute, not passing bills unless they were necessary and Democrats were backed into a political corner, not being able to change a mandatory bill.  This functioned for a while, but no one was happy, and the Planned Parenthood funding set off a bit of political dynamite-both sides weren't willing to give on the issue, and since Boehner still had to contend with President Obama's veto pen, he was put in a political quagmire.  He quit as a result.

The problem for Republicans is that with Boehner out, and McCarthy out, there's not really an obvious option for them.  McCarthy wasn't a lock, but he was the obvious successor in terms of rank within the House, but his comments on Benghazi were political poison.  Hillary Clinton, the likely frontrunner, would be able to use McCarthy's words against him for the rest of the campaign, replaying a video where he stated that they had attacked Clinton and her department over Benghazi to gain political points in an election, an ugly move proved more politically poisonous by the fact that four Americans died in Benghazi (it ranks up there in terms of political effectiveness with the Romney 47% video).  While Democrats have been claiming for months that this was a politically-motivated stunt, McCarthy's comments backed that attack up, but it also gives them ammunition on other scandals like Planned Parenthood and the Clinton emails; if they can make it look like the Republicans are reaching to gain political points, that could work out in their favor (just look at the 1998 Midterms and the fallout for Republicans who expected to make big gains from a Clinton impeachment).

The next highest-ranking man in the House GOP leadership is Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who is in a battle for the House Majority Leader against Rep. Tom Price (R-GA).  Both of these men's names will be bandied about as theoretical candidates for the Speakership, but neither is a great option.  Scalise has a checkered history on racial issues that nearly derailed his bid for the House #3 position, while Price has never held a position in the leadership outside of committee chair.  Other Republicans who could make a play include Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who is the Conference Chair but she failed to gain support in her bid to succeed McCarthy, so it's questionable if she could fight for a higher, tougher job.  There's Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who is well-respected in the party, but he's the face of the Benghazi investigation and it's doubtful that the GOP would want to put such an easy target for Democrats in charge of the House.  Republicans like Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Daniel Webster (R-FL) are both likely to run, so they shouldn't be dismissed, but Chaffetz couldn't win the conservative hardliners over (they endorsed Webster despite knowing Chaffetz would run), while Webster has to be the subject of ire amongst more establishment and moderate Republicans.  It's hard to imagine, after all, representatives like Charlie Dent or John Katko who represent pretty liberal districts, getting behind these men knowing that they'll be targeted in 2016 when they run for reelection.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)
The best option for the GOP is clearly Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the Ways & Means committee and the 2012 vice presidential nominee.  Ryan is one of those rare candidates (possibly the only candidate) who has the support among mainstream and conservative representatives and would win the Speakership in a cakewalk, but he has already declined to fill in for McCarthy.  Ryan's political ambitions are, quite frankly, a gigantic mystery.  After showing clear drive to enter the national stage in 2012, he's now turned down two opportunities for promotion (considering how the 2016 primary is going, he may well have been positioned to beat Rubio/Bush for the Koch/establishment endorsement).  With this refusal one wonders what is exactly going through his mind-at only 45 he's got years and years to go in his career if he wants it, but he won't be the golden boy forever and one wonders if he's being too cautious, eventually becoming something like Mario Cuomo who never actually makes it to the big leagues.  Other options could, legally, be someone who isn't in the House (you don't have to be a sitting member of Congress to be Speaker, though it's tradition and hard to imagine it going away), but I can't fathom someone other than Ryan the party could rally behind.  Most major figures in the party is running for president, and it's not like a Mitt Romney or even a Dick Cheney would say yes to such a position, provided they could find the votes.  There's also the option that Boehner is essentially forced to stay on, though one wonders if that's an actual option after all of this or if the Webster-backers would put a Speaker vote to the floor anyway.  There's arguably a possibility that someone like Candice Miller or John Kline, both respected but retiring members of the caucus, could serve as caretakers but would the conservatives go for an establishment type considering that they may never have this kind of momentum again?

What this does mean, though, is that Nancy Pelosi has a great avenue to pick up more seats.  Republicans look incompetent here, and like they're cleaning out the house when they should be having company over.  Pelosi is going to use this to try and make up her deficit, which oddly enough, unless she somehow finds a way to win the House or the Democrats lose the White House AND the Senate, is just going to exacerbate the problem.  Because while Dan Webster's seat is up-for-grabs (thanks to mid-decade redistricting), most of the hard-line conservatives will not lose reelection, but for every Democrat that wins back a seat, that's less cushion a Republican Speaker has to shore up his or her position.  It's frequently commented upon that the Tea Party movement is dead, but looking at this development, with two rock stars of the GOP turning down the job-of-their-dreams, it's hard not to feel that the Tea Party was so victorious that they are in control, and no longer just a movement.

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