This morning, Kevin McCarthy shocked everyone in Washington—including, apparently, most of his colleagues in Congress—by dropping out of the race for Speaker of the United States House. As the House Majority Leader, he seemed like a natural successor to John Boehner, who is planning to retire from Congress at the end of this month. And McCarthy was the clear frontrunner, though like many Republican legislators in our Trumpled times, his conservative credentials were insufficient to satisfy the chamber’s right-wing faction.
The House Freedom Caucus is the national analogue to what we in Texas summarize as the “Tea Party faction,” or the “scorecard voters” in the Texas House and Senate. Tim Dickinson, writing for Rolling Stone, offered an excellent dispatch from the faction’s tree house a couple of days ago. As he notes, the Freedom Caucus has fewer than 40 members. Its members nonetheless seem to have played a decisive role in Boehner’s departure; their opposition also helps explain why Eric Cantor, the House majority leader prior to McCarthy, was unseated in his primary last year. The right-wing’s anti-McCarthy agitation—I suppose it can’t really be called a form of McCarthyism, under the circumstances—apparently helps explain today’s development. That’s how McCarthy explained his decision, at least: “Over the last week it has become clear to me that our conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader.”
I don’t follow Congress closely enough to know whether the House’s Republican majority includes such a leader. But when it comes to today’s GOP, Texas has been the canary in the coal mine lately, and so I doubt it. So far in the 21st century the state of Texas has offered the gold standard of conservative government. Yet there is not a single Republican in office who activists, grassroots or otherwise, would hesitate to attack as RINO if it suited their purposes. If there’s no actual evidence of doctrinal unsoundness, it can easily be created. The best Republicans may actually be more vulnerable to right-wing challenges than their bumbling counterparts; a legislator who understands the arithmetic of vote counts, and the value of occasional cooperation, is prone to making the kind of compromises that purists decry. The competence that helped McCarthy become the House majority leader effectively doomed his chances of fully uniting the conference. Any Republican who is competent enough to become speaker can expect a similar fate.
But that’s a grim assessment of the prospects for competent governance in Washington, and so I’d like to offer an another possibility. Technically, it doesn’t matter if the conference is united. In Washington, as in Austin, the speaker is elected by a majority of the members; all representatives get one vote, regardless of their party of origin. In principle, it shouldn’t matter; the job assignment is speaker of the House, not speaker for the majority. And in practice, it doesn’t matter. Both Republicans and Democrats, I think, tend to believe that their agenda is most effectively advanced by highly partisan leaders. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reacted to McCarthy’s announcement by advocating Nancy Pelosi for speaker. And Charlie Dent’s suggestion, that Republicans like him join with their Democratic colleagues to elect a bipartisan speaker rather than continuing their efforts to appease the party’s “rejectionist wing,” was met with cynical incredulity from the Washington press.
But the only real barrier to electing a speaker with bipartisan support is witless partisanship, enabled by cynical incredulity. It’s probably still true that the Texas Lege is less polarized along party lines than Congress, but still: we have plenty of gerrymandered districts, and we’re not exactly a swing state. So I’d encourage Congress to pay attention to Joaquin Castro, the Democratic representative from San Antonio, who reacted to McCarthy’s announcement by calling for a different approach to the speaker’s race: “I hope that a Republican w enough support among Rs and a willingness to work with Ds will emerge that we can consider supporting.” This is presumably an issue that Castro feels pretty strongly about. Prior to being elected to Congress, he served for many years in the Texas House. He was among the Democrats who skipped the state in 2003, after relations with the Republican majority reached an all-time low. He was still in the Texas House in 2009, when Democrats announced their unanimous support for Joe Straus, a Republican, as speaker. In an interview with the Texas Observer’s Chris Hooks last year, Castro called Straus’s election a “perfect example” of something Congress might do to be more productive.
Having covered most of these events, though not suffered through them so directly, I’d say Castro is exactly right and that most of the Republicans in the Texas House would evidently agree. Straus was actually elected unanimously in 2009; there are 150 members of the Texas House, and so after the 60-odd Democrats and 12 Republicans went public with their support, his rival Republicans dropped out. He was re-elected unanimously in 2011 and 2013. This year, having finally drawn a formal challenge, Straus was formally re-elected by an overwhelming majority of representatives, although 19 Republicans voted for his Tea Party challenger, Scott Turner. (There are 98 Republicans in the Texas House.)
Along the way, needless to say, Straus has been consistently denounced and decried by Texas’s right wing. He is widely considered the most moderate Republican in high office in Texas. Prior to this year, I might have agreed, with the proviso that “most moderate Republican in high office in Texas” is a pretty low bar. Following this year’s session, that criticism is flatly false. Straus is demonstrably more fiscally conservative than the new lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, a self-styled conservative champion who held a press conference in March announcing a scheme to sneak around the state’s constitutional spending cap, which Straus politely but clearly opposed, and which the House ultimately blocked.
Overall, Texas’s 84th Legislature offers a case study that might be relevant to Congressional Republicans right now: the House was the more bipartisan chamber, but it was also the more conservative one. That might be counterintuitive, but it’s not paradoxical. The House has a bipartisan ethos, and a Republican majority; a Speaker who empowers the members of the chamber, which seems to be Straus’s approach, empowers the talented legislators in both parties. Such a speaker also empowers himself, as it happens. I’ve never been sure whether Straus, an even-tempered and well-mannered man, fully appreciates the potential monstrosity of his power. The right-wing faction of the party, which has been brooding over him for years, made a concerted effort to topple him this year, and he returned to the speaker’s dais with a roughly 70 percent margin of victory.
It may be that Straus himself is quietly a diabolical mastermind. But the basic arithmetic that underlies his mandate applies in Washington, too. American political debates are pretty well polarized, partly due to decades of gerrymandering; but the United States House of Representatives is, in effect, a purple district. The Freedom Caucus can grandstand all it wants, and it obviously bedeviled Boehner, but it has fewer than 40 members. They’re a minority in the Republican conference and an afterthought relative to the entire House. A candidate who can find a broader base of support would have much less sorrow as speaker.