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The Republican Party's Dysfunction Is an Embarrassment to Us All

Win McNamee / Getty Images

The movement within the House Republican conference to make Paul Ryan the next speaker has evolved into a desperate clamor, with members from almost every faction practically begging him to enter the race.

Ryan remains reluctant, if not quite Shermanesque in his reluctance, and for obvious reasons. Ryan has political ambitions beyond the House, but knows that the speakership is an office built to destroy a Republican leader’s partisan bona fides. Ryan is a great theoretical fit for the speakership, because he shares the right’s ideological extremism and the party establishment’s pragmatism, but stands to lose his good will with conservatives the instant he applies that pragmatism to funding the government or increasing the debt limit.

Under the circumstances, the only way for him to occupy the speakership without cashing in all his political stock would be to bring the House Freedom Caucus to heel in advance: Make its members pledge support to him, irrespective of his tactical opposition to defaulting on the debt and shutting down the government. The central question is whether House hardliners are chastened enough after two weeks of chaos to let Ryan dictate terms to them, not the other way around, and we have no indication that they are yet.

Assuming Ryan sticks to his guns and refuses the speakership (and that Boehner will ultimately resign, whether or not a new speaker has been elected), rank and file Republicans are going to have to take a serious look at forming a temporary coalition with Democrats.

At this point, Congress accomplishes little more than the bare minimum required to maintain status quo governance. Sometimes it’s unable to muster even that (see the Export-Import Bank, for just one example). But this thin record isn’t the bragging right of the Republican Party. It’s a bipartisan effort. And in the House, it’s mostly a Democratic one. The onus is on Democrats to supply most of the votes for the handful of things Congress actually does.

Under the circumstances, there’s a real logic to electing a coalition speaker—a placeholder who doesn’t fear activist retribution and can basically keep his hand on the tiller for the next year and a half, accomplishing little, but creating no damage. This person might have to make some nominal concessions to Democrats—no more debt limit or appropriations-driven extortion crises. Maybe the Benghazi committee would have to go. But the output of Congress would basically go unchanged.

The reason this is so unlikely, of course, is that partisan realities are solidified. Most Republicans might secretly wish for a drama-free resolution to the speakership crisis, but none of them want to place their careers on the line to join the coalition. Democrats, too, have a strong incentive to let Republicans eat themselves alive.

But that is ultimately the source of the House Freedom Caucus’ power. If one Republican were willing to make the sacrifice, or Boehner were willing to stick it out for the remainder of his elected term, the Freedom Caucus would be neutered. Instead, the Freedom Caucus is empowered to play whack-a-mole with various pretenders to the speakership, and can hold out until a candidate emerges who will make insane promises to them, and then attempt to deliver. Crises at every turn. Everyone loses, except them—and perhaps the press, which is understandably reveling in this story.

There’s also probably some difficult-to-measure upside for Democrats, who right now look like the model of competence and maturity compared to Republicans. But on the whole, it's a disaster. There’s nothing partisan or biased about saying that one of the two major political parties in the country is broken, unable to work within its main governing institution, liable to inflict severe economic damage on the country. It’s a genuinely bad state of affairs, a huge embarrassment for the country, and—unless Boehner, Ryan, or some other white knight asserts himself—a genuinely dangerous situation.