Tears were not uncommon during John Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the House. Whether he was attending statue unveiling ceremonies, sitting next to golf legend Arnold Palmer in the Capitol Rotunda or listening to Irish traditional music at the White House St. Patrick’s Day celebration, the embattled Ohio Republican was never far from a box of Kleenex. However, this past weekend, it was his members who took to the GOP cloakroom to shed a few tears due to the confusion and unrest that has now taken hold in the House.
And the party is just getting started.
So political junkies and the news media should take a break from Election Watch 2016 — there will be plenty of coverage over the next 13 months. Postpone talking about who’s ready for Hillary, speculating about whether or not Joe will jump in or being outraged at the latest hateful comment that’s fallen out of Trump’s mouth.
John Boehner is giving up his gavel at the end of October and another speaker of the House will be chosen. This person will have enormous influence on the national political discussion, the issues that are addressed by presidential candidates and which party might potentially win the majority next November.
What’s the most exciting part about this process? As of today, among the 247 Republican congressmen, we have no idea who’s the favorite. It’s like March Madness and everyone is a 16-seed.
In the uncertainty that rules the GOP right now, only one thing is certain: The Freedom Caucus, a hyper-conservative group of about 40 members, is a major player. This insurgency helped depose the sometimes-compromising Boehner and soon after played a part in forcing Kevin McCarthy, the heir apparent, to withdraw his candidacy. Largely identifying with the Tea Party, these diehard right-wingers have twice led the charge to a government shutdown — once in 2011 over the debt ceiling and once in 2013 over Obamacare — and hope that three times is the charm with their recent rhetoric against Planned Parenthood.
This sequence of events has led to maybe the most interesting development in the four years the GOP has controlled the House: a counter-revolution. Moderate Republicans are standing up and, for the first time in recent memory, there seems to be a real interest in actually governing.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R–Pa.) suggested building a bipartisan coalition to elect the next speaker, saying, “Whoever’s going to be the next speaker should not appease this group of rejectionists, who have no interest in governing.” Rep. Tom McClintock (R–Calif.), who resigned from the Freedom Caucus in September, said, “I believe the tactics the HFC has employed have repeatedly undermined the House’s ability to advance (conservative principles)” through “responsible and effective leadership,” as he had hoped at its inception in January.
Seniority, partisanship and lines of succession tend to rule in Washington D.C. How often do the American people get to see total chaos in their government? How often does the political intrigue that seems to only exist in House of Cards come to life? This is grade-A theater, and yet the headlines on every major news outlet are about 2016 — from Clinton e-mails and the Benghazi committee to which songs The Donald chooses to play at his campaign functions. Americans should stop looking miles down the road and notice the decisive political moment that is happening right now.
Look no further for the personnel of the House GOP thought to be in waiting for the speaker’s gavel. One is former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who has said very clearly that he does not want the job. Another is Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R–Utah), who was absolutely embarrassed on late-night television after his behavior at hearings on Planned Parenthood. He used a mathematically questionable graph that he got from an anti-abortion organization and then told the president of Planned Parenthood that the numbers were straight from her reports. When confronted, he simply moved on.
The most likely candidate, with the backing of the Freedom Caucus, is Florida Rep. Daniel Webster (R). Webster briefly ran for Senate in 2004, but failed to collect enough signatures to be on the ballot without paying a fee. He ultimately paid the fee and dropped out soon after. It has been five years of party infighting as conservatives begged for a new leader. Now their time has come, and there’s no one there to take the baton.
The Speaker of the House is third in line for the presidency and arguably the second-most powerful office in Washington. When his party is not in the White House, the Speaker is the face and voice of the opposition party. Republicans enter 2016 doing a considerable amount of soul-searching. Is the GOP really the party of the 1 percent? Why is Donald Trump leading in the polls? Which voice can help the party avoid three straight losses in presidential elections?
Whoever succeeds Boehner might be elected by bipartisan efforts and moderates in the House GOP. They might be a strong conservative, hand-picked by the Freedom Caucus. They might be a name we’ve never heard before. Ostensibly, this entire drama will play out before Boehner steps down on Oct. 30.
I, for one, will be watching closely.
Brett Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.