The pure theatre of events in the US House of Representatives this week is many things: a once-in-a-century impasse; a power struggle; a barometer of dysfunction; a gift to the Democrats. Joe Biden, the president, is right — even if entirely self-serving — to remark that it all looks “a little embarrassing” for the Republicans. Even if the matter is ultimately resolved, the humiliating, repeated repudiation of Kevin McCarthy’s attempts to be Speaker of the House — a role that is second in line to the presidency — represents an existential moment for the party. Its members and backers need to wake up.
It should have been smooth sailing for McCarthy, the majority leader who needs 218 votes to take the Speaker’s gavel. Instead, 20 rebels have blocked his nomination, despite his many desperate attempts to appease them. They are mostly on the far right of the Republican party, which won a wafer-thin majority in November’s midterm elections, and many are aligned with Donald Trump (though not following the former president’s call to back McCarthy). At the time of writing, no viable alternative to McCarthy has emerged. The House is constitutionally required to elect a Speaker and cannot start the business of governing until then.
That it has come to this should be no surprise, least of all to McCarthy; a consummate dealmaker who has made so many compromises to court the Freedom Caucus of his party and Trump that he is unrecognisable from the affable, moderate Republican that he started his political life as in California. Having actively courted anti-government members of what was the Tea Party a decade ago, it can hardly be a shock to McCarthy that those reactionaries now refuse to be governed. Nor that they make a mockery of the trade-offs necessary both to take office and also to govern. Neither is McCarthy the first Republican to suffer: just ask former Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. This is the cautionary tale for centrists across the world of the dangers of aligning with extreme cabals that can then hold legislatures to ransom.
If this is the chaos that ensues just to choose a Republican Speaker, what hope is there of a functioning legislature even if a Speaker is eventually chosen (and there is a way to go before even getting close to the record 133 ballots it took in 1855 to elect one)?
This should also give pause for thought to the Democrats. True, they currently look like the party of competence compared to the rats-in-a-sack across the aisle. But for all the Democrats’ schadenfreude, it is within their constitutional gift to break the stalemate by getting behind a moderate Republican candidate with whom they could work, having lost their majority in the House. Gridlock will otherwise shelve Biden’s programme of reform. That would include any uplift to the debt ceiling, which is necessary to avoid default, for instance.
This dysfunction is Trump’s true legacy. Those blocking McCarthy’s nomination may revel in that. But ultimately, this zero-sum mentality is self-defeating. Moderate Republicans ought to understand the damage that Trump and his acolytes have wrought — not just to the business of government but to their electoral prospects come 2024 too. That Trump and his anointed candidates have become electoral liabilities rather than dividends was evident in the midterms, which failed to yield the predicted “red wave” of votes. Moderates, and companies traditionally aligned with Republicans, ought not even entertain another Trump presidential nomination. As it stands, the Republican party has proven that it is not in the business of governing, only of keeping the Democrats from governing.