In recent days, I’ve had a very hard time figuring out whether we’re in a ‘Paul Ryan considering phase’ in the House leadership drama or in a ‘GOP caucus in epic denial’ phase of the same. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone quite knows. Ryan has said he’s not running for Speaker. To the best of my knowledge, he’s given no specific or even general timeline on whether he’ll have an answer if he’s considering a run for Speaker. And yet, he has not given a stark: ‘I ain’t running and I’m never going to change my mind so stop pretending I’m running’ statement. I think it’s possible that members of the GOP caucus are just in a collective delusional state thinking he’s considering it and that he will inevitably decide to run even though there’s little reason to believe this is so.
But as long as we’re assuming Ryan is ‘considering’ running for Speaker, I thought this picture, actually this book jacket, might put the whole thing in the most helpful perspective. This is Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders, a rather self-congratulatory book by Ryan, Cantor and McCarthy heralding a new generation of more ideological and more aggressive Republican congressional leaders who were going to take the fight to President Obama. It was published just before the 2010 mid-term election. Dyed-in-the-wool Tea Partiers would likely say, with some justification, that each of the three was in fact as much as a career politician as a revolutionary. And yet each played a key role in bringing about the new GOP majority that took over in 2011 and building the spirit of confrontation that characterized it.
And yet, look at the picture.
Eric Cantor is now working as an investment banker after undergoing the abject humiliation of being tossed from office – indeed, from the leadership itself, by a right wing primary challenger. He is now best known as an uber-RINO who paid the price.
Kevin McCarthy is the former Speaker designate who I’m still not sure is actually going to be able to hold onto the Majority Leader position. It’s hard to undergo that kind of humiliation – in political terms – and still hold on to power. Anyway, he’s essentially joined Cantor.
And that brings us to Paul Ryan, about whom former TPMers Sarlin and McMorris-Santoro once noted that a defining principle of modern Republican ideology is that “Paul Ryan is awesome”. That was true back in 2012. And it’s true now – that’s what explains the near universal (although not really universal) hope and wish and plea from House Republicans that Paul Ryan will please, please, please come and lead them.
But back to the picture. Ryan’s the only guy left still in good standing of any sort with conservatives. Remember the whoops and hollers at that convention when McCarthy’s destruction was announced? It was ten fold about Cantor.
The simple truth, which Ryan undoubtedly knows, is that the House leadership is a RINO-fying meat grinder. You enter a proud conservative with a bright future ahead of you and you’re ground out a few years later as a RINO, squish loser.
For Kevin McCarthy it only took a few days.
I chuckle a little when I see all these headlines about the GOP ‘imploding’ – largely in leftish publications. Because yes, they are imploding. But it’s also something like falling off the ground. It’s hard to see how much they can really be ‘imploding’ in any meaningful sense when they’ll almost certainly retain the House next year, have a decent chance at holding onto the Senate and can by no means be counted out to win the presidency. They also continue to dominate state governments across the country. The simple reality is that the country is held hostage to a structural breakdown in the Republican party which is that a substantial fraction of the House caucus demands an increasingly nihilistic attack on the structure of the government itself. It’s most concentrated in the ridiculously named ‘Freedom Caucus’ but extends well beyond it in various shades of extremity.
Leadership is not sustainable without their support. And yet what they want simply cannot be delivered. Politics elites – and the country at large – at least for the moment, won’t stand for it. Actually delivering on these promises would simply be too damaging for the GOP to actually pull off. And nihilism is in its essence unquenchable in any case. It is a structural breakdown and impasse that shows zero sign of going away or being resolved any time soon – though it would take on a very different shape if the GOP were to take the White House and the Congress next year.
Ryan has maintained his viability by keeping his distance from the leadership RINOizer. And doing so has served him splendidly. Why he would choose to enter it – and almost certainly be Cantorized and McCarthified a year or two down the road – is difficult to comprehend.