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The Republican House Is More Melodramatic Than High School

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

No one knows how crazy the House Republican caucus is right now better than House Republicans. When House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told them he was dropping out of the race to replace John Boehner as House Speaker this afternoon, there were gasps, tears, and a flood of overheated metaphors. “Be­fore John Boehner stepped down, I said if John Boehner steps down, the same people who were try­ing to take John Boehner down, will try to frag the next guy. … Well, that is just what happened,” Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania told National Journal. Fragging is when soldiers kill one of their own. It is a rather intense metaphor for guys walking around in Brooks Brothers suits. A more apt metaphor might be high school—it's like prom, except conservative House Republicans dumped pig blood all over the prom queen. 

Representative Peter King said that members of Congress were crying in the cloakroom, a scene familiar to anyone who survived ninth grade. "It is total confusion—a banana republic," King told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa. Representative Tom Rooney confirmed the tears, saying, “The per­son next to me was cry­ing.” Who these mystery criers were, we do not know; the usual suspect, outgoing Speaker John Boehner, appears relieved to be free of the House GOP mess. A subtly entertaining quote came from Congressman Mark Sanford, who told National Journal, “There were a lot of emo­tions, be­cause it was so ex­traordin­ary and out of the or­din­ary,” while holding a plate of barbecue and coleslaw: Chomp chomp chomp, shit’s fucked up, man.

The way the news broke was emblematic of the chaos that took hold today: The press found out about McCarthy’s withdrawal when Representative Ryan Costello bumbled out of this morning's caucus meeting. “Apparently I broke the news about McCarthy; blame it on being a Freshman and going out the wrong door," he tweeted. 

It seems that hardly anyone wants to be speaker—a job that’s third in line for the presidency of the United States, mind you. There’s no obvious frontrunner. Paul Ryan immediately said no thanks. Trey Gowdy also said no, telling reporters that those able to lead the GOP “are not willing to do it.” Only a couple days ago, Boehner had joked to his friend, Representative Tom Cole, “I had this terrible nightmare last night that I was trying to get out and I couldn’t get out. … And a hand came reaching, pulling me.” The New York Times reported, “As shocked members left the meeting there was a sense of total disarray, with no clear path forward and no set date for a new vote."

Is the House even governable at all? “I don't know," McCarthy said. "Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom." 

Given that no one wants to be speaker, Representative Bill Huizenga floated the idea of a temp. "I am warming to the idea of an 'Interim' or 'caretaker' Speaker to serve thru the rest of this term. Someone who has announced retirement," he tweeted. People were joke-suggesting Donald Trump for the gig, and a few, according to PBS's Lisa Desjardins, were seriously suggesting Mitt Romney.

McCarthy was asked whether he dropped out because of the controversy over his statement last week implying the purpose of the Select Committee on Benghazi's was to hurt Hillary Clinton's poll numbers. “Well, that wasn’t help­ful," he said. But rumors were circling around the hallways, and the conservative internet, about another possible motivation for his decision: Rep. Walter Jones had sent a letter warning those running for leadership positions should withdraw if they have any issues of "moral turpitude," including adultery, that could hurt the party. Reporters asked McCarthy if the letter was a factor in his decision, and he said no.

But conservative pundit Erick Erickson explained that that Jones's letter followed a mass email alleging an affair between McCarthy and Represenative Renee Ellmers of North Carolina. Erickson does not name the emailer, but says he or she has the email addresses of many Republican members of Congress and top conservatives. "It is again worth noting that both parties deny it," Erickson wrote. "But the rumor itself may have led to McCarthy’s collapse." (A good gossip always claims to care first and foremost about the truth.) A 2011 New York Times profile of McCarthy noted McCarthy was close with Ellmers: 

Sometimes when Ellmers is talking to the whip and doesn’t think she’s getting through to him, she claps her hands loudly in front of his face. Sometimes McCarthy giggles and claps back.

Matt Lewis highlighted the fact that Ellmers recently said she was backing Jason Chaffetz for speaker, saying McCarthy hadn't called her, so "I’m apparently not high on his priority list." 

Especially on a day like this, the House GOP definitely bears a greater resemblance to a high school than a war zone. "I wouldn’t have enjoyed being Speaker this way," McCarthy told National Review after his withdrawal. The hunt for a new prom king continues.