How the Right’s Purity Tests Are Haunting the House G.O.P.

When Casey Stengel had the misfortune to be the manager of the historically inept 1962 New York Mets, his famous plaint was, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

The question for House Republicans, mired in a weekslong demonstration of their internal dysfunction, is: Does anybody here want to play this game?

It is tempting to interpret the chaos in the House as the function of a dispute between the pro- and anti-Trump elements of the party, but this isn’t quite right: The deposed speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is in no way anti-Trump. Instead, there were pre-existing trends, either represented or augmented by the rise of Donald Trump, that have undermined G.O.P. coherence and made the Republican House practically ungovernable in the current circumstances.

The conservative movement has warred against the party establishment since its inception. Conservative heroes like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich rose by arraying themselves against Republican powers-that-be that they considered too timid and moderate.

The Tea Party of the 2010s seemingly reflected the same tendency toward greater conservative purity. Yet, it was more populist and more disaffected with the G.O.P., which is why so many of its leaders and organizations lined up so readily behind Donald Trump.

On top of this, the two losses to Barack Obama, especially the second one in 2012, convinced many Republican voters that their party was feckless and naïve. Mitt Romney was serious, civic-minded and conscientious, and got absolutely bulldozed by the Obama campaign, which portrayed him as some kind of monster.

The thinking of a lot of Republicans after that was, basically, If you portray all our candidates as crude, unethical partisan haters, well, maybe we should give you one.

At the same time, the power of the party establishment had atrophied thanks to all sort of factors, from campaign-finance reform to social media, while it still remained a hate object for much of the right. This made the establishment a ready target for Donald Trump in 2016, but ill-suited to fighting back against him.

Mr. Trump is a little like Bernie Sanders — a forceful critic of his party’s mainstream who isn’t at his core a member of the party. (Senator Sanders isn’t a registered Democrat, while Mr. Trump became a Republican again after flitting among various affiliations and would surely quit once more if things didn’t go his way.) The difference is that Mr. Trump won the Republican nomination in a hostile takeover, whereas the Democratic Party had the antibodies to resist Mr. Sanders.

Even as Mr. Trump was something new in Republican politics, he was also something familiar. Even before his rise, Republicans were much more susceptible than Democrats to nonserious presidential candidates running to increase their profile for media gigs, book sales and the like. Mr. Trump was this type of candidate on a much larger scale, and, again, happened to actually win.

One way to look at it is that the very successful model that the commentator Ann Coulter forged in the world of conservative media — generate controversy and never, ever apologize — came to be replicated by candidates and officeholders.

Both Vivek Ramaswamy and Matt Gaetz are creatures of politics for the sake of notoriety. It creates entirely different incentives from the traditional approach: Stoking outrage is good, blowing things up is useful, and it never pays to get caught doing the responsible thing.

At the congressional level, there was a related, although distinct phenomenon. With the rise of the Tea Party, the tendency of the right flank of the House Republican caucus to make the life of the party leadership miserable became more pronounced. This was especially true in spending fights. The pattern was that the right, associated with the House Freedom Caucus after its founding in 2015, would hold out a standard of impossible purity, and then when leaders inevitability failed to meet it, denounce them as weak and traitorous.

There are, of course, legitimate disagreements about tactics and priorities, and the leadership doesn’t always make the right calls. But some of these members consider the legislative process in and of itself corrupt, and refuse to participate even if they can increase the negotiating leverage of their own side or move spending deals marginally in their direction.

This was a notable dynamic in the spending fight that led to the toppling of Speaker McCarthy. His fiercest critics did nothing to help keep him from having to resort to the option they found most hateful — namely, going to Democrats for a kick-the-can deal in advance of a government shutdown.

Representative Gaetz, the Gavrilo Princip of the Republican meltdown, exemplifies almost all these trends. He is a House Freedom Caucus-type in his attitudes toward the leadership and his rhetoric about federal spending, but his ultimate political loyalty is to Donald Trump. He’s overwhelmingly concerned with garnering media attention. And no one has the power to bring him to heel.

There’s no dealing with the likes of Mr. Gaetz because he’s operating on a different dimension from someone like Mr. McCarthy, a pragmatist and coalition-builder who is trying to move the ball incrementally. It’s the difference between politics as theater and politics as the art of the possible; politics as individual brand-building and politics as team sport.

In the last Congress, Nancy Pelosi had a slim majority like Mr. McCarthy and a restive handful of members on her left flank, the so-called Squad. Yet she held it together. The difference is that Ms. Pelosi still had considerable legitimacy as a leader, which gave her the moral power to keep everyone together. It is instructive to contrast her not just with Mr. McCarthy, but with the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. Whereas Ms. Pelosi, an institutionalist concerned with getting things done, is a legend among Democrats, Mr. McConnell, also an institutionalist concerned with getting things done, is hated by much of his party’s own base and constantly attacked by the party’s de facto leader, Donald Trump.

The situation in the Republican House caucus has now developed into a sort of tribal war, where memories of real or alleged wrongs committed by the other side lead to more conflict and more bad feelings. So, establishmentarians and relative moderates were willing to take down the speaker candidacy of the House Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, rejecting his new argument that everyone had to come together for the good of the whole.

It may be that exhaustion sets in and Republicans eventually settle on a speaker, or it may be that the problem is unresolvable and they will have to find a way to govern under the speaker pro tempore, Patrick McHenry. Regardless, it’s become obvious over the last three weeks that no, not nearly enough Republicans want to play this game.

Rich Lowry is the editor in chief of National Review.

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