Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as House speaker shows just how hopelessly divided the Republican Party is. But divided doesn’t mean harmless — the hard right can still inflict pointless suffering on the millions of people who depend on government services.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, October 3, 2023. (Nathan Howard / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” That message has not yet reached the House Republican caucus. After less than a year of attempting to maintain a ceasefire among members of his party, Kevin McCarthy was ousted yesterday as Speaker of the House by a handful of Republicans. His downfall serves as a reminder of how deeply divided the GOP remains, and a warning of the high risks and low rewards that await those attempting to bridge that chasm.

McCarthy’s tenure as speaker, the shortest in a century and a half, began with portents of its inglorious end. With only a single-digit majority coming out of the 2022 midterms, McCarthy was forced to hamstring his own speakership from the beginning. A number of far-right Republicans, led by deeply media-conscious figures like Colorado representative Lauren Boebert and Florida representative Matt Gaetz, insisted that McCarthy accept rules designed to weaken his position as speaker: most centrally, a provision allowing any House member, at any time, to call a vote to remove the speaker. After fifteen rounds of balloting that paralyzed the House for the better part of a week, McCarthy finally assented.

From the beginning, then, McCarthy’s speakership was defined by his futile attempts to mediate between the party’s right-wing and ultraright-wing factions. In this, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessors. John Boehner, who led the Republicans in the House as speaker from 2011 to 2015, retired from the position amid persistent challenges to his leadership from the House Freedom Caucus, formed out of Tea Party congressmembers after the 2010 midterms. His successor, the Tea Party darling Paul Ryan, announced he was retiring after serving just two and a half years as speaker, during which time he was unable to rouse Donald Trump’s interest in any part of his legislative agenda beyond tax cuts for the rich. Trump’s followers, meanwhile, detested Ryan, and plotted his removal.

McCarthy seemed, for some reason, to believe he could succeed where Boehner and Ryan had failed and forge a Republican majority capable of delivering real legislative accomplishments. Given that he helmed the House in a moment of divided government, with Joe Biden in the White House and a Democratic Senate, the prospects for passing any Republican priorities were slim, so the Republican agenda became mainly about forcing budget austerity.

Even in this, McCarthy was unable to achieve any substantive consensus in his caucus. The GOP was united in wanting to use the debt-ceiling negotiations last spring to force broader cuts to federal spending. However, there were deep disagreements about how deep the reductions should be, and what the party should risk to secure them. The Republicans were unable to achieve anything resembling a coherent negotiating position, and ended up winning cuts that were little more than cosmetic. About a third of Republicans voted against the final bill, and McCarthy relied on Democratic votes to pass it. McCarthy’s decision both weakened his position toward Democrats in future negotiations and further inflamed the party right.

In the past month, the GOP’s internal conflicts again prevented the House from approving the long-term spending bills that generally fund the federal government. When this happens, short-term funding bills, called continuing resolutions, generally fill the gap. However, the ultraright in the GOP, led by Gaetz, denounced the attempt to pass continuing resolutions, effectively embracing government shutdowns until the House GOP was able to come to some agreement on the long-term budgets. McCarthy, determined to avert a government shutdown, caved and offered the Democrats a continuing resolution that did not include military aid to Ukraine, but contained no other budget cuts. The climbdown was, by any estimation, a major defeat for the entire GOP, whose inability to come to a consensus handed the Democrats an even bigger win than the spring spending bill.

McCarthy’s rejection of a shutdown prompted Gaetz to call for a vote on McCarthy’s speakership, finally bringing down the sword he and the other ultraconservatives had held over the speaker’s head for his entire tenure. By voting against McCarthy, they have triggered a new leadership contest among the Republicans.

The outcome of that contest is not at all clear. Several names have already surfaced as contenders. But whoever wins, their task is unenviable. The Republican majority is so thin that a handful of defectors can easily derail a bill. Effectively, if Gaetz and company are willing to endure a government shutdown and its potential electoral consequences, they can force the rest of the conference to go through with it as well. The only way those opposed to a shutdown could avoid it would be with Democratic votes — bought with compromises that would only bring more tantrums from the ultraconservatives.

The political talent on offer from the GOP bench hardly seems sufficient to thread this needle.

Divided, Yet Dangerous

The Republican Party of 2023 is deeply divided, and this division has blocked it from achieving its political goals. But the party is still dangerous. It is entirely possible that Gaetz and his ilk will get their way under the next speaker, and the possibility of a protracted government shutdown can hardly be discounted. Already, markets are pricing in this likelihood. Such a shutdown would bring a vast amount of suffering to the millions of people who depend on government services, as well as government workers who would suddenly be without paychecks.

Nothing encapsulates the modern Republican Party better than this moment. With no coherent policy agenda, the GOP’s only impact is to spread pointless suffering.

Yet amid the Sturm und Drang, one potentially unifying figure has been floated as a possibility for House speaker: Donald J. Trump. Since the speaker does not have to be an elected member of the House of Representatives, the suggestion is not merely idle chatter, and is doubtless being discussed by at least some members. It’s a fitting image for where Trump himself has delivered the Republican Party — fractured, weakened, and with little beyond his own person to give it direction.

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