Never fear, Republicans. Newt Gingrich is ready to step into the office from which he was chased, if not chaste.
“If you were to say to me, 218 guys have called you up and given you their pledge, obviously no citizen could turn down that challenge,” Newt told the Washington Times.
So there’s that option.
Personally, though, Paul Ryan appears to be by far the better choice. The Wisconsin Republican and former vice-presidential nominee has repeatedly begged off pleas to become speaker, citing his responsibility as the father to young children. If that’s truly his reason, then it should be respected, but I have a feeling that Ryan understands the historical moment. If asked to preside as a weak speaker over the sort of chaos to which the GOP appears committed, he will continue to turn it down. He sees what’s down that road — extended government shutdowns, possible default on our debt, etc. — and wants no responsibility for what he would lack the power to stop.
However, if actually given the chance to lead his party and country out of this increasingly dire predicament, he might take it.
What would that second option require? It would require confronting and if necessary breaking the power of the so-called Freedom Caucus, which might more aptly be called the Hell No Caucus. That group of 40 or so House Republicans are the vestal virgins of the modern GOP, a collection of souls so allegedly pure and uncompromising in their conservatism that they are given leverage far in excess to their number. What they want, party leaders increasingly feel obliged to give them, and any who dare to challenge them become targets of the conservative media that serve as their enforcers. The majority of House Republicans were happy with John Boehner as speaker, but the vestal virgins wanted him gone, so he is going. The majority would also have been content with Kevin McCarthy, but the virgins have now vetoed him too.
The dynamic is all but inevitable: When you create a party that celebrates extremism and abhors moderation, you give the extremists the power to define you. You also create a party that cannot be led, and Ryan understands that.
At the moment, in these desperate circumstances, Ryan may have the standing to demand and receive loyalty pledges from all 247 members of the House GOP, including from the Freedom Caucus members. “We need somebody to get us 247,” as McCarthy put it in abandoning his own bid. “And I was never going to be able to get 247.”
But over the longer term — which these days is three or four months — personal pledges of loyalty will not suffice and the logic of mathematics will reassert itself. You need 218 votes to do the people’s business in the House, and House leadership can get those 218 votes in one of two ways. They can continue to coddle and spoil the Freedom Caucus, allowing them to call the shots and acceding to their increasingly irrational demands. That doesn’t end well.
Conversely, they can ignore the Freedom Caucus and begin to turn to the Democrats for votes, seeking compromise and co-operation. The first approach preserves party unity, but at immense risk to the country and to the party’s future. The second approach breaks the power of the Freedom Caucus and its backers, but at great risk of splitting the Republican Party in two.
That’s why, if you’re Paul Ryan, you may continue to choose Option C, none of the above.