Oops, they did it again. On Tuesday the House Republican gong show once again failed to choose a new speaker of the House.
This time it was one of the conference’s most belligerent hard-liners, Jim Jordan, who got smacked down, falling a whopping 17 votes short of a majority on the first round of voting. And as the second round of voting was punted to Wednesday, his path to victory wasn’t looking much more promising. Fingers crossed. Mr. Jordan’s failure to seize the gavel would be a good thing for all Americans — most definitely including responsible Republican lawmakers.
His belly flop set off a flurry of anxious speculation about What Next. Will he cut the mother of all deals with enough G.O.P. holdouts to drag himself over the finish line? Will a dark-horse alternative candidate emerge? Will Kevin McCarthy rise from the dead like some congressional Nosferatu? Will the winsomely bow-tied Patrick McHenry serve as speaker pro tem forever? “I don’t know what to think,” lamented James Comer, a Jordan backer, as he fled the floor on Tuesday.
Eventually, one assumes, a new speaker will emerge. But the entire circus has already laid bare the dark flaw at the heart of this Congress: The Republican conference is failing as a democratic entity.
A healthy democracy needs its participants to accept a basic will-of-the-majority model. Fringe factions have rights, but they do not run the show. For years, the Republican Party has been shifting toward an anti-majoritarian, burn-down-the-system ethos. Time after time, the preferences and well-being of the many are abandoned in pursuit of the desires of the extremist few.
Nowhere has this become more evident than in the House, where various slivers of hard-liners delight in holding the entire chamber — and on occasion the entire country — hostage. The Freedom Caucusers want this or that unpopular policy stuffed into a spending bill. Matt Gaetz’s rebels clamor for this or that procedural change. In some cases, the Venn diagram circles of demands overlap; in others, different gangs dig in on different priorities. Forget compromise or collaboration or collective governance within the conference. It is not even a question of might makes right so much as a contest to see who can grab the most attention for throwing the most disruptive tantrum.
As a community slides ever deeper into chaos and dysfunction, it becomes less suitable for democratic leadership and more primed for domination by a political strongman. Its weary members often become more open to the charms of players who display the tenacity and ruthlessness to impose order on the feuding clans. For a while now, House Republicans — much like large swaths of the party’s electorate — have seemed headed in this direction.
For all his storied political savvy, the recently defenestrated Mr. McCarthy failed to grasp how far his side had devolved from the political era in which he joined the House in 2007. Trying his hand at old-school coalition building, he cut deals with and empowered his fringiest members in the hopes of earning their good will. All he wound up fueling was their rage and contempt.
Mr. Jordan clearly fancies himself more of a Trumpian strongman. He has never been a leader or a serious legislator but is, rather, a career pugilist who seems developmentally stuck in his glory days as a high school and college wrestler. When nominating him on the House floor Tuesday, Elise Stefanik (one of the more painful cautionary tales about the corrosiveness of Trumpism) felt compelled to cite his mad skills “on the wrestling mat.” Seriously? The guy is pushing 60, and we’re still yammering about his teenage takedowns? And not to be indelicate, but do Republicans really want people thinking all that hard about Mr. Jordan’s wrestling baggage?
Mr. Jordan attempted a different route to the top. Whatever shiny promises he may have made to colleagues, his speaker campaign has relied heavily on intimidation. His supporters, including outside groups and media figures like Sean Hannity, ran a hard-edge pressure campaign, looking to rally the party’s base against Republicans who stood in Mr. Jordan’s way. This is not a minor threat. In the Age of Trump, Republicans targeted by the MAGA-verse have learned to fear not only for their political fortunes but also for the safety of themselves and their families.
Such bullying undoubtedly suits Mr. Jordan’s self-conception. But it seems unlikely he, or much of anyone in his conference, has what it takes to be a genuine strongman. A garden-variety thug, maybe. But his leverage and influence, like so many hard-liners’, largely derive from being a creature of Mr. Trump. Mr. Jordan may consider himself a powerful figure. In reality, he is just another Trumpian lap dog, albeit an especially currish one.
This is one of the ironies of today’s Republican Party. So many of the folks who see themselves as having the Trump-like will and strength to lead are little more than slavish followers of the MAGA king. Generally speaking, toadies don’t make for great strongmen. Small wonder that the House’s Republican leaders in recent years have been so weak and forgettable.
Last week, Mike Collins, a Georgia Republican, summed up the absurdity, and tragedy, of his conference’s situation on social media: “We should just have a lottery. If you lose, you have to be speaker.”
Yes, he was joking, and his suggestion sounds absurdly random. But it also may be more democratic — and likely to produce a better outcome — than the road House Republicans have been headed down of late.