One of America’s old folk heroes was the errant pilot, “Wrong Way” Corrigan. He is the perfect model for Rep. Matt “Wrong Way” Gaetz, and his small band of rightwing allies. Corrigan earned his nickname in the late 1930s when his flight from Long Island to California actually landed in Ireland. Gaetz’ flight of fancy landed in the wrong place, too, out of fuel, out of ideas, and out of a working GPS. It managed to end the Speakership of Kevin McCarthy, but it had no solution to the problem it created, no glide path to a safe landing in the right place.
The Florida congressman and his allies wanted to bring down McCarthy because they considered him too moderate. They succeeded for two reasons. The first is a combination of the Republicans’ narrow majority and the House rules. To be elected Speaker, a candidate must win a majority of all votes in the House. That’s normally a simple process. The majority caucus picks a leader, as Democrats did with Nancy Pelosi, and all their members vote for her.
Not this time. Eight Right-wing Republicans did more than vote against McCarthy in their caucus. They voted against him on the floor, joined by cynical Democrats. The Republicans couldn’t spare those eight defections. McCarthy lost 216 to 210.
Second, Gaetz was able to force that vote because McCarthy had to strike a lousy deal to win the Speakership in January 2022. Normally, a Speaker holds his seat for the entire, two-year term. Not this time. To gain his seat, McCarthy agreed to permit a floor vote to remove him if even a single disgruntled Republican demanded it. That’s what Gaetz did.
Although Matt Gaetz was skilled at demolition, he wasn’t nearly so skilled at rebuilding. He and his allies never had a feasible solution for the vacancy they created. Worse, their tactic set a precedent in their caucus. It showed the other representatives that a small group of holdouts could block whoever they opposed. Moderate Republicans learned that lesson.
The result is a stalemate. House Republicans are stuck, and so is the country. The House is stuck because its standing rules prevent that body from considering any legislation until a new Speaker is chosen. The House can change those rules, but, to do so, they’ll have to get around the Catch-22 that they can only vote on a new Speaker. If they can’t fill the vacant Speaker’s chair soon, they will be forced to ignore that limitation and somehow change the rules.
Why did these blocking coalitions emerge within the Republican Party? The answer hinges on the party’s ideological divisions and local politics. The ideological division is a split between traditional conservatives and radical populists, led by Donald Trump. Traditional conservatives seek slow, methodical change and recognise the limits on their power since they don’t control the Senate or the White House. Populists, by contrast, want to highlight their stark differences with Democrats and, often, with moderate Republicans. They are willing to smash some crockery to do it. Some believe their strong stance will force the Senate Democrats and the White House to cave to their demands. It won’t.
These ideological differences are reinforced by local politics. Over a dozen moderate Republicans were elected from districts that voted for Joe Biden in 2020. Those representatives face voters again in 2024 and fear being associated with a high-profile, Right-wing Speaker. It was these vulnerable congressmen who rejected one proposed successor to McCarthy, Jim Jordan, as too polarising.
As long as these countervailing coalitions remain united, they can block each other. That leaves the Republicans stuck, the House without a leader, and Congress unable to act. This impasse gives Democrats a powerful argument for 2024 that the opposition party is incapable of governing. President Biden has sharpened that point by requesting urgent aid for Israel and Ukraine. The House cannot even consider his request without a Speaker.
How can Republicans resolve this self-imposed roadblock? Four possible ways.
One is to cut a deal with some Democrats to support a moderate Republican Speaker. That path is riddled with obstacles and is probably impossible. The only way to win over House Democrats is to offer them significant, tangible benefits. But any Republican who does that would lose support within the caucus and face primary challenges.