‘Nobody is in charge’: A ragged GOP stumbles through the wilderness
By Lisa Lerer & Reid J. Epstein
As the chaos and confusion on the House floor continued for a third day, Republicans made it abundantly clear who is leading their party: absolutely no one.
From the halls of Congress to the Ohio Statehouse to the backroom dealings of the Republican National Committee, the party is confronting an identity crisis unseen in decades. With no unified legislative agenda, clear leadership or shared vision for the country, Republicans find themselves mired in intraparty warfare, defined by a fringe element that seems more eager to tear down the House than to rebuild the foundation of a political party that has faced disappointment in the past three national elections.
Even as former President Donald Trump rarely leaves his Florida home in what so far appears to be little more than a Potemkin presidential campaign, Republicans have failed to quell the anti-establishment fervor that accompanied his rise to power. Instead, those tumultuous political forces now threaten to devour the entire party.
Nowhere was that on more vivid display than the House floor, where 21 Republicans on Thursday stymied their party from taking control for a third day by refusing to support Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid for speaker.
After McCarthy failed on his seventh attempt to win the leadership position, the House appeared in a state of limbo, with Republicans continuing to negotiate among themselves about whether to keep voting or adjourn for the weekend.
“Nobody is in charge,” John Fredericks, a syndicated right-wing radio host and former chairman of Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns in Virginia, said in an interview. “Embrace the chaos. Our movement is embracing the chaos.”
That ideology of destruction defies characterization by traditional political labels like moderate or conservative. Instead, the party has created its own complicated taxonomy of America First, MAGA and anti-Trump — descriptions that are more about political style and personal vendettas than policy disagreements.
This iteration of the Grand Old Party, with its narrow majority in the House empowering conservative dissidents, represents a striking reversal of the classic political maxim that Democrats need to fall in love while Republicans just fall in line.
“The members who began this have little interest in legislating, but are most interested in burning down the existing Republican leadership structure,” said Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who embodies the party’s pre-Trump era. “Their behavior shows the absence of power corrupts just as absolutely as power does.”
Fredericks, who is typically one of the most aggressive pro-Trump voices in the conservative news media, said that even the former president’s renewed endorsement of McCarthy on Wednesday would do little to shore up the would-be speaker’s support.
Indeed, none of McCarthy’s opponents reversed course after receiving calls from Trump encouraging them to do so. Rather, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado took to the floor Wednesday afternoon to urge her “favorite president” to change his view and tell McCarthy to withdraw his bid.
“The movement has eclipsed its Trump leadership,” Fredericks said on Wednesday, when 20 House Republicans opposed McCarthy’s bid. “We found 20 new leaders.”
That’s a very different definition of a leader from the traditional image of a legislator muscling policy through Congress and reshaping American life. In the new conservative ecosystem, leaders are born of the outrage that drives news coverage on the right and fuels online fundraising.
The new political dynamics distinguish this class of Republican agitators from the self-styled revolutionaries who took control under former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1994 or the Tea Party lawmakers who clashed with Speaker John Boehner after the party’s 2010 triumph. Those insurgent movements aspired to change the vision of the party. This group of House lawmakers, their Republican critics say, are focused far more on their personal power.
“There’s been a growing tolerance of people who do not act in good faith who consistently diminish the institution for their personal gain and advancement,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who was in the House for the first two years of the Trump administration. “This is the most dramatic manifestation of that toxic culture.”
While few voters are likely to be following every twist in the arcane congressional procedure, several Republicans acknowledged that the party’s infighting in the House could saddle it with an enduring perception of dysfunction.
Matt Brooks, the executive director of the powerful Republican Jewish Coalition, called for the “infidels” to pay a “real price” for their opposition, adding, “There are elements of us looking like the Keystone Kops.”
At least a few Republicans worried that the drama could have long-term effects, as the party heads into what increasingly looks like a contentious battle for the 2024 presidential nomination.
“We have to get this speakership settled and we have to go forward if we want to be successful in 2024 as a united party,” Ronna McDaniel, who faces a stiff challenge this month to her leadership of the Republican National Committee, said on Fox News on Tuesday. Pleading for lawmakers to unify behind McCarthy, she said, “This Republican-on-Republican infighting is only hurting one thing: our party.”
The Republican unrest has trickled down to places like the Ohio Statehouse, where state Rep. Jason Stephens, a moderate Republican, joined with Democrats this week to snatch the speakership from state Rep. Derek Merrin, who has co-sponsored some of the chamber’s most conservative legislation. The surprising outcome reflected the Republican caucus’s inability to unify behind a single candidate despite holding a two-thirds majority.
The Republican National Committee is also facing questions over McDaniel’s leadership. Like McCarthy, she predicted sweeping victories before the November election, and she is now being challenged by Harmeet Dhillon of California, an RNC member who has argued that there must be consequences for the party’s failure to meet expectations.
Both Republican conflicts have split the conservative news media, with Tucker Carlson of Fox News backing the insurgencies while his prime-time colleagues have urged Republicans to coalesce behind McCarthy.
As in the House, the RNC fight isn’t about conservative bona fides or fundraising prowess or even fealty to Trump. Dhillon’s case against McDaniel is that the party didn’t perform strongly enough in November — and that if more Republicans had won in competitive House races, McCarthy would not be beholden to the members who have held hostage his bid to be speaker.