Salena Zito at Real Clear Politics:
To understand today, you must know or understand our past. History matters.
More often than not, when a major political event happens in America, it is immediately categorized as the “worst moment ever.” Respect for the historical lineage of our country’s moments, large and small, is essentially forgotten or erased.
…That was never more evident than last week when Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican congressman and House majority leader, bowed out of the race to become the next speaker of the House.
Do you know how many times this has happened before? Do you know how many bitter speakership races both parties have had? Or what caused them? And what was the end result of any such moments?
Those questions all deserve explanation. Why? Because people must understand that the moment they are living through has either happened before, or perhaps has even been worse.
Those answers also deserve reflection and understanding, as we plow through yet another populist moment in our country that is amplified by modern social media.
Between 1840 and the beginning of the Civil War, our nation and its political parties were so divided, so raucous, so driven by populist passions, that the House — the chamber in Washington that most reflects the temperament of the people — changed speakers every year.
Could you imagine the social-media exchange back then?
Nathaniel Banks won the House speakership in 1855, but only after fighting off 20 rivals, 133 ballots and two months of bickering.
Wouldn’t you just love to see the hashtag for that?
In 1922, after Republicans lost nearly 100 seats to Democrats in that year’s midterm elections, Frederick Gillett’s speakership was on the brink; the two dozen Western progressives who survived the midterm slaughter were upset over the shortsightedness of Old Guard Republicans toward their hardline brand of conservatism.
They revolted and, despite their minority status, held up Gillett’s speakership unless demands were met for greater distribution of House power to their cause.
An intraparty impasse began; leadership underestimated the rebels’ stubbornness; eight ballots were cast, some compromise demands were met, and Gillett eventually was re-elected as speaker.
The House always has operated in chaos.
Walk the Speaker’s Lobby outside of the House chamber in the U.S. Capitol and gaze up at the collection of speakers’ portraits and you can see all of our history in their eyes: the pain, satisfaction, premature aging, strain, arrogance, humor, serenity — all reflections of us, all reflections of the times, both good and bad, that our country has gone through.
Before them went laws, conferences, party factions, populist strife, wars and, above all, compromises that have shaped our country.
It is most likely that it was retiring Speaker John Boehner who knew Kevin McCarthy could not assemble the 218 votes he would need to be elected as Boehner’s successor. It is most likely that Boehner — a strict loyalist to the responsibilities of the job and to the country, as well as to the preservation of the majority he helped to build — cautioned McCarthy to call it off.
The problem Republicans face is that the larger their majority became, the more fractious it has become, adding members less likely to turn over power to their leaders.
The House’s Freedom Caucus, a leading opponent of McCarthy, is myopic; it doesn’t see the long game and is showing the nation with its “Hell, no!” attitude that it can’t govern.
If Americans think Republicans can’t govern, then the party surely will lose the presidency in 2016, along with any chance it had of filling Supreme Court seats and perhaps its majorities in Congress.
Populists will rage at that sentiment. But populists have never won the presidency. Ever.
Or held the House speakership longer than a few months.
It’s happened before.