For the Republican Party, it was an embarrassment for the ages; a drama of petty personal animosities, shameless self-aggrandizement, cheap demagoguery and ideological fractures played out over nearly a week on the national stage and raising doubts about the party’s ability to govern.
Entrusted by voters last November with control of the House of Representatives, the first act of their newly-elected majority was a continuing failure to meet their most fundamental responsibility — the election of a Speaker to lead in justifying voters’ trust to change policies and force the Biden Administration to step back from its move toward the far left.
Whatever the outcome, the stain on the Republican Party will never be scrubbed away fully. It may fade somewhat with the passage of time, but its indelibility will forever haunt the party’s legacy.
Over three days of voting and 11 roll calls, California Congressman Kevin McCarthy — the party’s minority leader and universally acknowledged pre-election successor to the Speaker’s office — failed to exceed 203 votes, well short of the 218-vote threshold for election.
His ascension to the Speaker’s office was blocked time and again by a hard-core band of 20 Republicans — fewer than 10 percent of the party membership — but more than enough to stymie McCarthy from achieving his long-desired goal of presiding officer.
With 222 members, McCarthy’s margin of error is excruciatingly slim — a loss of only five votes denies him a victory — and places enormous leverage in the hands of his opponents which they’ve exercised with cult-like precision.
McCarthy offered concession after concession to the hold outs, mostly changes in the rules governing House operations and administration and committee assignments, but each only led to further demands and continued opposition.
New Jersey’s three Republicans — Chris Smith, Tom Kean Jr. and Jeff VanDrew — have stood resolutely by McCarthy through it all and will continue their support until he breaks the impasse by striking an accommodation with additional concessions or steps aside voluntarily.
In the meantime, Congress cannot act to fulfill any of its duties from the relatively mundane to those with global implications.
The gang of 20, though, shows no sign of budging, unconcerned their actions not only deepen the embarrassment but inflict damage on the institution and diminish its standing in the eyes of the world.
They openly concede their opposition to McCarthy is largely personal, a dislike and distrust which they claim he has done nothing to address.
For his part, McCarthy has remained insistent that he will not back down and he and his allies will continue to negotiate a settlement with the hold outs.
Even if he manages to peel as many as 15 from the group, it is widely acknowledged that five members have pledged to oppose him regardless of further concessions — a pledge that, if adhered to, will end his quest.
While ideological differences are at play in the stalemate, they are not the dominant factor. The opposition is deeply personal, transcending any policy disagreements and assuring that any pleas for party unity and loyalty will continue to fall on deaf ears.
The gang of 20 seems intent on humiliation in revenge for what they feel are past indignities inflicted on them by McCarthy. Grudges are not easily forgiven or forgotten in that corner of the political universe whose operating principle is “Don’t get mad; get even.”
A last-minute statement of support for McCarthy from former president Donald Trump was ignored, indicating a steady — and for Trump, troublesome — decline in the former president’s clout, even on the part of those who have been his staunchest supporters in Congress.
In fact, during one of the roll calls, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, the acknowledged ringleader of the gang of 20, added to his and his followers’ embarrassment by laughingly voting for Trump for Speaker.
Democrats have stood by in some enjoyment of the Republicans public meltdown while delivering a unanimous 212 votes on each roll call in support of New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries for Speaker.
They’ve have wisely rejected any speculation of striking a deal with McCarthy to deliver a handful of Democratic votes to install him as Speaker in return for what would surely be a major power-sharing arrangement that would effectively create a coalition government and give Democrats the upper hand in legislative matters.
There appears to be no sentiment among Democrats to interfere and bail out McCarthy while Republicans would be outraged at ceding any level of power and, in effect, refuting the results of an election in which they were awarded the majority.
The path to success for McCarthy appears to be narrowing. He’s been unable to build upon his vote total and concern is growing that he’ll appear weaker with each subsequent roll call and his strategy of waiting out the opposition is doomed to fail.
The difficult conversation and the doubly difficult decision to withdraw from the contest is fast approaching. While speculation has centered on presumptive majority leader Steve Scalise as a replacement candidate, there is no guarantee the gang of 20 will agree.
While there is little stomach for continuing the frustrating events of the past week — failure atop failure — there is equal concern that giving in to the anti-McCarthy faction will only serve to empower it.
Defeat would be an exceedingly bitter pill for McCarthy and his allies to swallow, but at the same time reality must be acknowledged and the moment must be met.
Their dilemma is that faced in any confrontation with individuals or groups who believe to their core they have nothing to lose, that whatever their actions they’ll not be penalized or called to account.
The damage to the Republican Party, though, has been profound and long lasting. Whatever rewards the gang of 20 anticipates will be illusory and they will be remembered only for the harm their intransigence has inflicted in the service of personal vengeance.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.