Why the Speaker of the House is a No-Win Situation for Republicans

by Benjamin Studebaker

This past week has seen quite a bit of drama surrounding the planned retirement of current Speaker of the House, John Boehner. Boehner wants to quit, but his republican colleagues cannot seem to find an agreeable replacement for him. The first consensus choice, Kevin McCarthy, has pulled himself out of the race. Some have alleged it’s due to an affair, but it’s also quite possible that McCarthy could not get the support of the “Freedom Caucus“, a group of 42 hardline republicans who together have enough seats to prevent mainline republicans from passing anything without the support of democrats. Now many republicans are calling on former Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan to put himself up for the job, but to this point he has refused to do so. What’s the deal?

To start, a few words about what the Speaker does and why it matters. The Speaker’s key power is the ability to determine which bills the house will vote on and when those votes will take place. The Speaker gets to decide who gets to speak and when in the chamber. The Speaker also gets to appoint 9 of the 13 members of the house rules committee. This committee determines how bills will be debated in the house and what may be done to them (e.g. it can allow or disallow amendments on various parts of the bill, it can regulate how much speaking time there will be, and so on). The Speaker also gets to decide which committees will consider which bills, and he gets to appoint the members of select and conference committees. Altogether, it is potentially a powerful role–if the Speaker doesn’t like your bill, it cannot get anywhere in the house. Speakers are chosen by congress. Consequently, the Speaker has traditionally been one of the majority party’s representatives in the house (although there is no rule stipulating this–indeed, the Speaker does not even have to be a member of congress).

Ever since the republicans took the house from the democrats in 2010, they have been torn between two competing strategies:

  1. The Boehner Strategy–Boehner believed that if republicans pulled out all the stops and did whatever they could to obstruct President Obama, this would play poorly with voters. So while Boehner was willing to make many meaningless gestures against Obama (e.g. having the house vote to repeal or defund Obamacare 50 times), he was also willing to negotiate with Obama to pass spending packages and avoid shutdowns. To get Obama’s agreement, these spending packages have had to keep his core policies off the chopping block, producing ugly compromises that both sides have found distasteful.
  2. The Cruz Strategy–Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a senator and presidential candidate, but his ideas about how house republicans ought to oppose Obama have significant support within the party. Cruz believes that the republicans will get more support from the public if they take a harder line and stand up for conservative principles. Consequently, Cruz thinks the house should pull out all the stops, passing legislation that Obama will not sign and refusing to fund the government until Obama acquiesces.

This mirrors the internal debate the republicans had after the 2012 election. Did Mitt Romney lose because people believed he was too right wing, or not right wing enough? Some argued that Romney’s conservative stances on immigration, social issues, and his comments about “the 47%” alienated Hispanics, young people, and working class voters. Cruz never agreed with that line of reasoning–he believes Romney lost because he failed to galvanize the base. Or, as Cruz puts it:

Today roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values.

This is misleading on a couple of counts. First, it’s not strictly true–the data suggests that 58% to 63% of evangelicals voted in 2012, which is significantly more than half. But more importantly, turnout among evangelicals was not substantively lower than it was for other groups in 2012. Whites as a whole turned out at about 64%, which is pretty similar. The groups that had significantly below average turnout were Hispanics, Asians, poor people, and young people:

On average, non-voters skew left wing, not right wing:

This means that if both the left and the right play to the base, the left has far more potentially to gain from this strategy. Bernie Sanders probably knows this, and there’s a good chance it’s one of the core reasons he believes he can win. At one point in time, the republicans knew it too–in their post-mortem of the 2012 election, the RNC broadly came to the conclusion that the party needed to move toward the center to win. It said:

The perception, revealed in polling, that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates on the federal level, especially in presidential years. It is a major deficiency that must be addressed.

Cruz and the Freedom Caucus are wrong. When the government shuts down, the republicans look too extreme and they are blamed. But the interesting thing is that republicans themselves don’t recognize this–while the public as a whole shows the republicans taking the blame by an 8 point spread (5 points among independents, 71 points among democrats), the republicans continue to blame Obama by a 56 point margin:

Government Shutdown Blame

People tend to believe that other people are more like them than they really are. Ted Cruz and the Freedom Caucus are well-accustomed to denying research and crafting ideological bubbles around themselves. As a result, they won’t listen to anybody. Prior to Boehner’s resignation, they were plotting to vote him out in favor of someone more hardline. They continuously threaten to block the agenda of Speakers who will not do what they want, and they are a constant threat to defy the Speaker in attempts to force shutdowns. The Freedom Caucus has enough members to prevent the republicans from passing anything without either their support, or the democrats’. Unwilling to ally with people that republican voters see as aligned with evil, establishment republicans continuously find themselves forced into taking nonconstructive action that does not accomplish republican policy objectives and makes it harder for republicans to win elections going forward.

There is no republican who can convince the Freedom Caucus to stand down because republicans have spent years building an echo chamber around themselves. They live in a political fantasyland that, ironically, no longer aligns with the “real America”, a place that is becoming more racially diverse and more socially liberal. For all of these reasons, republicans remain very likely to lose the presidency in 2016, and there is little that any prospective Speaker of the House can do about that. Indeed, the next Speaker will find himself assaulted on both sides–whenever the Speaker plays to the Freedom Caucus to retain its support, the Speaker will make the party look obstructionist and extremist, and cost the party votes from the center. Whenever the Speaker tries to be pragmatic, the Freedom Caucus will call the Speaker a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and refuse to back whatever compromises to which the Speaker has agreed. Whatever the Speaker does, the Speaker’s reputation will be tarnished with important parts of the Republican Party, making it more difficult for the Speaker to potentially run for president in the future. In sum, prospective Speakers stand to damage their own political careers without achieving anything noteworthy. There are only two sorts of people who might actually want this job:

  1. Hardline republicans who want to use the Speaker’s power to shut the government down.
  2. Optimistic fools who overrate their own persuasive power and delusively believe they can get the establishment and the rebels to work together sustainably.

Establishment republicans will never back a hardliner for the job. We’re waiting for an optimistic fool. Who’s it going to be?