It looks like the revolution will be televised, after all. The tea party revolution, that is.
First Eric Cantor, then John Boehner, now Kevin McCarthy. What do they all have in common? They have all succumbed to the storm of conservatives angry at a party leadership they felt was betraying its base.
It began during the 2014 midterms, when then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary race to a tea party-backed candidate who highlighted Cantor’s leadership failings, particularly on immigration. One down.
Then, earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner abruptly decided he was calling it quits for the good of the “institution.” His tumultuous tenure as speaker was plagued by accusations from conservatives that he was unwilling to stand up for his principles and take up the fight against President Barack Obama’s progressive policy agenda. Boehner had in fact been the target of conservative ire for years, and had already faced a serious challenge to his speakership earlier this year when he barely won re-election in the closest speaker’s contest since 1860.
But after months of conservative frustration with the GOP leadership, and accusations the House was being run unfairly, Rep. Mark Meadows introduced a resolution to declare the speakership vacant. It went nowhere, but it was still a provocative move that put Boehner on notice. And, as fall approached, conservatives felt Boehner was capitulating on the effort to defund Planned Parenthood. Conservative talk of a vote to oust Boehner seemed to be growing, and on September 25, he announced his resignation. Two down.
Now, less than two weeks later, here we are again. In a stunning turn of events, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the heir apparent to the speakership and GOP establishment favorite to replace Boehner, withdrew from the race to replace him. The announcement shell-shocked GOP members of the House as they emerged from an all hands on deck meeting that was originally supposed to be an internal vote to nominate the next speaker.
Immediately upon Boehner’s announcement, conservatives made it clear they did not want McCarthy ascending to the speakership unchallenged. Yes, he is well-liked by most GOP members. But this didn’t stop a group of GOP conservatives, led by the 40-member House Freedom Caucus, from expressing their desire for fresh leadership — someone who could stand up for conservative principles and be an effective messenger.
McCarthy was still the front-runner, but he made a potentially fatal blunder.
Last week, during an appearance on Fox News, McCarthy implied the House Select Committee on Benghazi was created to help take down Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. This was a serious gaffe, one a potential speaker of the House could not afford to make; McCarthy had just handed Clinton and the Democrats the equivalent of political manna. His comments breathed new life into a Clinton campaign reeling from months of bad press and tanking poll numbers over her dubious explanations for using a private email address as secretary of state.
Just like that, over a year’s worth of investigative work into the Benghazi attacks, which led to the death of four Americans, was undermined.
McCarthy tried to clarify his remarks, but the damage had been done. It became clear that backing for McCarthy was in big trouble, and despite his efforts to placate conservatives by promising to be more inclusive, the Freedom Caucus endorsed one of their own, Rep. Daniel Webster. McCarthy apparently saw no path to victory, and no way to the necessary 218 votes.
So that makes three. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell better watch his back.
In a recent poll, 62% of GOP primary voters said they felt betrayed by their party, while two-thirds felt GOP leadership hasn’t done enough to stop Obama’s agenda. Their voices have been heard in the House, and conservatives have succeeded in a clean sweep of the top three House Republican leadership spots.
The key question now, of course, is who will be able to thread the needle of unified party leadership? The opportunity conservatives have been demanding has finally come. Now it’s time to lead, because Republicans cannot afford the distraction of disarray if they want to have any chance of taking the White House in 2016.