Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy of California wants to be elected Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. The two worst things that can happen to him are first, that he’ll lose the election to the Speakership and, second, that he’ll win it. After all, the House Speakership is where ambitious Republicans go to see their careers die.
Each party takes a different approach to the elevation of its leaders to the House Speakership. The Democratic approach can fairly be likened to an escalator. Normally, a Democratic House Speaker will have served an apprenticeship in a subordinate party position, doing time as a caucus chair, a party whip (assistant party leader), and minority leader until the Democrats win a majority in the House, at which time they elevate their leader to the Speakership. Nancy Pelosi was put squarely on the road to the Speakership when she was elected party whip in 2002.
In the selection of their leaders, House Republicans take more of a “snake pit” approach. The greatest sin a House GOP leader can commit is to be in office when Republicans lose House seats. Almost every House GOP leader since World War II had, at some point in his career, been offered a choice by his colleagues after the occurrence of election losses: Leave office voluntarily, or be thrown out of office. This was, for example, the choice offered House Speaker Newt Gingrich following the loss of GOP seats in the 1998 midterm elections. He chose to resign both his speakership and his seat. He was neither the first GOP leader nor the last to have his career options reduced to two: Voluntary resignation or involuntary rejection.
Which brings us to Kevin McCarthy, the current leader of House Republicans, whose lifelong ambition has been to be elected Speaker of the House. Although the Republicans will have a small majority when the newly elected House begins operating next January, it is by no means clear that the House will elect him Speaker. To win election he needs a majority of the entire House, or 218 votes. But while most Republicans have pledged to vote for him, a large minority, mainly in the conservative House Freedom Caucus, have said they won’t—at least, not yet. Nor of course, will any Democrats support his bid for the Speakership. So the failure of McCarthy to win near-unanimous GOP support may doom his bid for the Speakership to failure.
But this may change. He could conceivably make enough deals with Freedom Caucus members to win back their support and prevail in the Speakership contest. What promises he will have to make and whether he can keep them remain to be seen. His promises of committee assignments and power to Marjorie Taylor Greene are examples of what he must do to hold onto power.
But winning the Speakership could prove almost as bad as losing it. McCarthy will be head of a fragile, fractious coalition in the House, difficult to keep united on much for long. The loss of just a few votes in the House, or the loss of a few seats in upcoming elections, will be enough to bring out the long knives of his opponents. He could then find himself following his GOP predecessors out the exit door—John Boehner, or example, who resigned in midterm as Speaker in 2015, and Paul Ryan, who declined to run for re-election to Congress in 2018.
So Kevin McCarthy’s choices realistically boil down to two: Lose the Speakership now, or win the Speakership now, with the understanding that like his GOP predecessors, he’ll probably be offered by his fellow Republicans the option of either giving up the Speakership voluntarily or giving it up involuntarily. House Democrats accord their leaders the luxury of chances. Republicans don’t. So Kevin McCarthy should be very careful in what he wants to happen. He may get it.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.