House GOP Chaos: Will It Hurt 2016 Hopefuls?
The sudden shake-up in the House speaker race and its ensuing chaos figures to be problematic for Republicans who eventually will be asking the American electorate for the keys to the White House.
Kevin McCarthy’s exit from the contest for Congress’ top job reflects a long-simmering GOP divide on Capitol Hill, but is also emblematic of the state of play on the campaign trail, where political outsiders are leading the presidential race on a platform of disrupting Washington.
McCarthy acknowledged as much when he withdrew himself from contention. “For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face,” he said.
Given the competing philosophies on governance within the party, McCarthy’s decision was met with mixed feelings from Republican White House hopefuls, ranging from concern to vindication.
"If we have a meltdown in the House, and if we can't govern in the House, then it is going to hurt our chances to win in 2016,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said during a campaign stop through New Hampshire, NBC News reported.
Others sought to distance themselves from the situation altogether. Jeb Bush, who is trying to reinvigorate his campaign, said during a stop in Iowa, “I'm not going to inject myself into a political vote inside the House caucus.” Bush, a former Florida governor, added that “Washington seems so removed” from regular citizens’ lives.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie insisted that the public didn’t care about “inside Washington” leadership elections. “It’s ‘Game of Thrones’ time,” Christie told CNN.
On the other side of the spectrum, Donald Trump, the current frontrunner, tried to take credit for McCarthy’s demise. “They’re giving me a lot of credit for that,” he said during a campaign rally in Las Vegas. “It’s bedlam in Washington right now. It’s a mess. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Trump called for a speaker candidate who would be a skilled negotiator able to extract concessions from the White House during the coming fight over the debt ceiling.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also chimed in on the larger implications, saying the speakership race “is about burning the corrupt Washington political machine to the ground and rebuilding our country so America can win again.”
As of Thursday evening, there was no clear Republican congressional leader in sight. Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate, has repeatedly dismissed calls to take the reins. Current House Speaker John Boehner, who is resigning after intra-party fights over a spending bill to keep the government running, is reportedly urging Paul to take the mantle, insisting he is the only candidate who can unite the fractured party.
In addition to exposing a leaderless party, the Capitol Hill turmoil comes just as Republicans had opportunities to make a compelling case against Hillary Clinton. On Wednesday evening, Clinton, facing an increasingly vigorous primary challenge from the left, announced her opposition to the trade deal championed by President Obama—a marked departure not only from the administration but also from her past statements. News and biting analysis of Clinton’s political move was soon overshadowed by the developments in the House.
This marked the second time in recent weeks Republicans had stepped on their own fortunes. McCarthy’s downfall came after he said during a Fox News interview that the House Benghazi committee had helped drive down Clinton’s poll numbers. While McCarthy tried to walk back his comments, Republicans grew uneasy, criticizing him for undermining the work of the committee and handing a gift to Democrats. The Clinton camp seized the opportunity, calling the committee a taxpayer-funded opposition research team, and ran ads to that effect.
Some Republicans argue there is still time for the House to figure out a way forward in time for it to count. “We had the same chaos in the House in 1998-9, and yet we were able to keep the House and win the White House,” notes John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former aide to Dennis Hastert. Feehery was referring the drama that unfolded after New Gingrich resigned the speakership and Speaker Designate Robert Livingston abruptly resigned after news of an extramarital affair, and led to Hastert becoming speaker. “If they get the right person in there, they still have time to fix things,” Feehery said.
Still, many questions remain about whether the GOP conference can unite around a leader.
“If this turmoil continues,” Sen. John McCain told MSNBC, “I can surely understand why people would wonder what’s going on in the Republican Party.”