In a year that is already shaping up to be politically revolutionary for Democrats and Republicans, as anti-establishment candidates surge in the battles for the presidential nominations of both political parties, official Washington was thrown into complete chaos Thursday afternoon as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) abruptly dropped out of the race to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
As of late Thursday afternoon the House Republicans postponed the vote to decide who they want to serve as the next House speaker. Behind the scenes, the GOP is scrambling to consider last-minute alternatives to be their choice for speaker, with House conservatives rejoicing at McCarthy’s withdrawal, but lacking a speaker candidate who can win a majority of votes in their caucus. The more establishment and moderate wings of the party are in disarray, as first Mr. Boehner and then Mr. McCarthy have fallen by the wayside without advance notice.
To put the current chaos in context, there have been three sudden, blockbuster developments in recent days that have fomented the chaos that now engulfs Congress.
First, while the visit of Pope Francis to the capital generated feelings of excitement and reverence to official Washington, at the very moment the pope approached the podium to address the United Nations in New York, House Speaker John Boehner suddenly announced—completely out of the blue—that he was resigning his position as speaker, as well as his seat in Congress.
The sudden and unexpected resignation of a speaker is a once-in-a-generation event. As a long time columnist for The Hill newspaper and former aide to Democratic leaders in Congress, I regularly deal with Democrats and Republicans in Congress and on the White House staff. I can report that literally within minutes of Boehner’s announcement, my email was flooded and my phone was ringing with shocked Democrats and Republicans asking, “What the hell is going on?”
McCarthy’s blunder was the mother of all gaffes that spoke the mother of all truths.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Mr. Boehner’s second in command in the Republican leadership, was universally expected to succeed him. House conservatives do not fully trust McCarthy and less senior Republican members emerged as potential opponents to him, but they were not expected to defeat him in the speaker’s race, with the conservative hope that a deal could be made to make a conservative member Mr. McCarthy’s number two.
Then came the second shocker, when McCarthy was asked on Fox News to name the major achievement of the GOP Congress, and he replied that one of the major achievements was that the House committees investigating Hillary Clinton had succeeded in driving her poll numbers down.
This proved to be a major gaffe by McCarthy, widely seen as validating Ms. Clinton and Democrats’ charge that the House Benghazi investigation was always a partisan ploy, a misuse of taxpayer money and an abuse of Congressional power. House Republicans were outraged by McCarthy’s comments, Democrats were overjoyed and Team Hillary pounced with a major television ad.
I wrote a column this week for The Hill titled “Hillary Whips McCarthy” suggesting that McCarthy’s blunder was the mother of all gaffes that spoke the mother of all truths, which obviously gave a major boost to the Clinton campaign shortly before she was scheduled to testify before the House Benghazi committee on October 22.
Within hours of my “Hillary Whips McCarthy” column, I was receiving excited thank-yous from people very close to the Clintons, and I also received a few rueful calls from GOP friends who said things like, “How could McCarthy say anything so stupid?”
As Republican members of Congress came to work this morning, Mr. McCarthy was in trouble with his GOP members, yet still heavily favored to win the speaker’s vote and almost universally expected to ultimately become the next speaker.
It is important for readers to fully appreciate the degree to which official Washington has been hit: three stunning developments in recent days, which, taken together, create a virtually unprecedented situation of Congressional chaos, even by standards of the dysfunctional Congress that exists today. Then came the final shock in our trilogy of stunning developments. Mr. McCarthy suddenly announced he was dropping out of the speaker’s race and would remain as majority leader. Moments after he announced his withdrawal, Congressional correspondents were in complete shock, along with Democratic and Republican members. CNN correspondent Dana Bash, normally a fairly temperate reporter, could barely speak while interviewing Republican members who were equally flummoxed and, in come cases, almost incoherent when trying to explain what had just happened, and what comes next.
Rarely has a speaker resigned as suddenly as Mr. Boehner, rarely has his presumed successor made a gaffe as devastating as McCarthy’s and rarely has a presumed successor to the speakership dropped out as abruptly as Mr. McCarthy did, leaving House Republicans without a succession plan for their leadership and leaving Washington in a state of political shock and chaos.
Here is what will happen next: I spent a good part of my career working for the House Democratic leadership under three speakers, beginning with the legendary Tip O’Neill, and one lesson I learned long ago is that a party leadership in Congress must balance widely different ideological factions, regional representatives and political interests.
While conservatives are rejoicing at the fall of Mr. Boehner and, to some degree, McCarthy, the right cannot rule the House or govern the nation without a majority it does not have today.
House Republicans must find a formula that can restore the image of their party as a governing party, which is now in shambles after the chaotic events that have destabilized their leadership in full public view. While conservatives are rejoicing at the fall of Mr. Boehner and to some degree McCarthy, the right cannot rule the House or govern the nation without a majority it does not have today.
It would not surprise me if there were an effort to persuade Speaker Boehner to remain as speaker through the 2016 elections to maintain some semblance of party stability through the elections. A major and potentially historic presidential campaign is the worst possible time for a political party to be seen by the nation as chaotic, unstable or extreme.
Alternatively, there may be an effort to persuade Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to run for speaker. Mr. Ryan is a generally conservative and widely respected member of Congress, and was Mitt Romney’s choice for VP in the 2012 campaign. He is currently the chairman of the hugely powerful House Ways and Means committee, does not want to leave that post and announced late Thursday that he will not run for speaker. There may well be a move to persuade him to change his mind.
If Ryan does not run, there will be major discussion within the GOP about the future of their party in Congress. There is no obvious candidate for the speakership from their side of the aisle. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a younger conservative who had challenged Boehner, is a rising star but is not widely seen as speaker material until he garners far more experience.
There is also a long shot chance that the GOP considers an elder statesman candidate who is not currently a member of the House. It is not widely known, but the Constitution stipulates that the speaker does not need to be a current House member.
On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi feels a new surge of confidence that Democrats can gain more seats in the House in 2016. And I can promise readers, from numerous conversations I have had with people close to the Clintons since the Mr. McCarthy gaffe, there is joy in Clinton-land after several rough months.
As for me, it is late Thursday and I have a long list of calls to return, emails to respond to and a scheduled television interview to appear on—all to discuss the shock and confusion that now engulfs official Washington in what must be the most extraordinary and chaotic moment I have experienced in my many years in the capital.