Published October 3, 2023
Representative Matt Gaetz’s (R., Fla.) challenge to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R., Calif.) position is said to be an effort to remove the impediment to moving conservative policy. That’s not true. The identity of the speaker is not the real barrier to conservative policy: The difference of opinion over what it means to be conservative within the Republican membership itself is.
The current collection of GOP representatives is consistently conservative and has been for decades. The American Conservative Union has rated representatives and senators on their conservative bona fides since 1971. It gave House Republicans a score of 80 out of 100 in 2022, not appreciably different from their scores since the 2010 landslide. It last gave the House GOP a rating over 90 in 2010 — when the party had sunk to its smallest number of members since 1978.
Even this masks the degree to which congressional Republicans have moved to the right over the years. In 1980, on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s election, 36 GOP representatives and twelve senators had ACU ratings of 50 or lower. Last year, only eight House Republicans and three senators scored that low, and five of those members have retired. Republicans have never had so few genuine moderates in Congress as there are today.
The challenge, then, is reconciling differences within conservatism. Gaetz and his supporters tend to view conservatism as a revolutionary creed that is heedless of overall public opinion. Others are less revolutionary but still want to move the needle as far to the right as quickly as possible.
The majority of the conference disagrees. They want lower domestic spending overall but also recognize that their desires are unlikely to come to fruition as long as Democrats control the Senate and the White House. They would prefer to bargain for small incremental wins, waiting patiently for the time that a GOP trifecta can move more aggressively.
Getting these three groups on the same page has bedeviled every Republican House speaker during the last 13 years. John Boehner (R., Ohio) resigned rather than face a motion to vacate. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) succeeded only in passing the 2017 tax-cut legislation. Kevin McCarthy’s travails, then, are simply the latest episode in this long-running soap opera.
It boggles the mind that anyone thinks a new speaker could bring these incompatible viewpoints together any better than the last three have. Put someone else in the chair — Representative Steve Scalise (R., La.) or Representative Tom Emmer (R., Minn.) are some of the latest names to surface — and they would still have to get the support of irreconcilables who are willing to defy the supermajority of their colleagues on board.
There’s no evidence to suggest that meeting their demands could pass muster with a majority of the House, much less provide a strong bargaining position with the Senate and President Biden. There’s also the strong chance that the conference’s nihilists will simply move the goalposts and challenge the speaker on different grounds. It often seems as if they are more interested in winning alleged purity contests than they are in making the country more conservative.
This means that whoever occupies the speaker’s chair has to effectively deal with this reality rather than hope that yet another listening session will do the trick. News flash: Petulant toddlers don’t respond to coddling; they respond only to firmly enforced structure.
That’s why Gaetz and his crew could be losers even if they unseat McCarthy. The person they help select will surely murmur sweet nothings in their ears to get the gavel. But if they have any political sense at all, they know they will have to rid themselves of this political irritant as soon as possible so that the conference supermajority can get down to business.
California political history provides an example of what that might look like. In 1980, assembly Democrats were locked in a ferocious battle over the speakership. Supporters of Assemblymen Leo McCarthy (D., S.F.) and Howard Berman (D., L.A.) spent millions in primary campaigns to unseat members favorable to their rival. When the dust settled, Berman had a narrow edge, but McCarthy’s backers were still angry.
That’s when a backbench member made his move. He cut a deal with the chamber’s Republicans to elevate himself to the speakership, denying Berman his prize. He then turned his back on the GOP and conciliated his former foes. Berman got a seat in Congress, McCarthy became lieutenant governor, and Democrats ran the floor behind his leadership for another 14 years.
That’s how the legendary Willie Brown became the “Ayatollah of the Assembly” and the most powerful politician in the state. Unless Republicans stumble on someone similarly talented and ruthless, kicking Kevin McCarthy out would simply rearrange the deck chairs on the GOP’s Titanic.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.