Today’s Republicans Need to Get Out of Their Own Way
As the House ballots reached double digits in the attempt to elect California Republican Kevin McCarthy to be House speaker, a catchy refrain from the musical “Hamilton” grew louder in my mind:
“You don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes…”
Ah, how embarrassing it must have been for McCarthy, who used to whip votes for then-Speaker John Boehner during President Barack Obama’s presidency, that it took 15 ballots to finally win his own speakership.
The larger question: What’s happened to Republican unity?
Looking back, it doesn’t take much of an autopsy to see the fractured state of today’s Republican Party as the latest twist in a 30-year GOP power struggle, an era that began with then-Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich’s displacement of then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel in the 1990s.
It was a different political era. Although Michel was never part of the majority party during his 38 years in the House, he was notable for striking bipartisan bargains and friendships. In a model of bipartisan civility, he famously shared rides on weekends with fellow Illinoisan Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, a leading Democrat.
That spirit of comity faded after President Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost the Senate and House for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich’s Contract With America agenda helped Republicans nationalize the race and initially strengthened Gingrich, who shared with Clinton an affection for big-thinking policy issues.
But by the mid-1990s, Republicans’ failure to achieve common ground forced government shutdowns that Clinton used to his advantage. Casting Republicans as opponents of such popular programs as Medicare, Medicaid and public-school education, Clinton struck a middle-of-the-road agenda that helped him survive his impeachment in 1998.
Clinton’s job approval actually rose partly in a backlash against his impeachment. Republicans lost House seats in that year’s elections and Gingrich resigned from the speakership, taking up a new role as an internet-era elder statesman and media pundit.
In that role, it was illuminating to watch him tear into the small group of House Republicans who refused to support McCarthy’s speaker bid. On “Fox & Friends” last Wednesday, Gingrich said the holdouts were “blackmailing” McCarthy, the party and the American public by stopping the conference from being able to move forward with its agenda.
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