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The Idiot Dream of the Unity Speaker

McCarthy’s epic struggle briefly gave the punditocracy a chance to indulge in one of its most persistent—and persistently stupid—fantasias.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
John Kasich during his doomed run for president in 2016

On Friday afternoon, we finally saw some movement toward ending the intraparty logjam that prevented House Republicans from installing Kevin McCarthy as the speaker of the House, thus fulfilling the California lawmaker’s quest to win what has historically been a matter of procedural routine. Alas, while the Republican leader successfully brought many of the holdouts into his fold, too many remained outside the tent. And so we remain stuck in Capitol Hill’s version of Groundhog Day, for at least one more round of voting—to be resolved at last, perhaps, late Friday night.

I want to make it clear that this is all very funny. Kevin McCarthy has lost the vote to become speaker of the House a ridiculous number of times. Nothing changes but the vote count, and yet he persists, conclusively proving that the myth of Sisyphus is a comedy. The would-be speaker’s detractors, mainly far-right members of the House Freedom Caucus, have until now remained steadfast in their antipathy toward McCarthy’s bid. McCarthy’s supporters, if you could call them that, are largely united in their anger toward the House Freedom Caucus. 

To hate like this is to be happy forever. But will this take forever? Signs emerged late on Friday that an end to this farce might be in sight, with McCarthy finally giving away enough concessions to the hard-liners to get himself over the line after a week spent trying.   

But McCarthy wasn’t the only person who spent the week toiling in futility. Washington’s idea-havers managed to use this period of idleness to half-bake themselves up some silly schemes of their own. Two notions that got thrown around included the idea of finding a “unity speaker” from outside the House’s 434 members (they are down a man because of the recent death of Virginia Democrat Donald MacEachin) who might garner some Democratic votes—think John Kasich or Justin Amash, both of whom have hardly been hiding their interest in the job. 

A second option involved a sufficient number of Republicans making a deal with a sufficient number of Democrats to break the impasse. Such an arrangement might have ended with McCarthy or some other Republican holding the gavel; or if you’re in the mood for wilder endings, perhaps a few Republicans working in tandem with Democrats could elevate Hakeem Jeffries to the speakership. 

These are definitely some attractive ideas—catnip for screenwriters and bipartisanship fetishists. They are also utterly implausible fantasies, completely at odds with reality because they ignore the nature and the goals of the current Republican Party. Yes, holdouts like Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert have garnered headlines with their extensive demands to disempower the next House speaker. But there’s no reason to believe that their more reasonable colleagues—to the extent that descriptor fits—would go along with any potential speaker who would either garner Democratic support or disrupt the party’s ambitions.

But what can’t make sense in the real world can nevertheless take flight in the cloud-cuckoo-land of our op-ed pages. Writing late last month in The New York Times, William S. Cohen and Alton Frye make the case for the outside “unity candidate” option. Noting that Colin Powell and Joe Biden have received votes for speaker in the past, the two make the case that pulling someone from outside the current Congress is essential to make the body functional. They cite Kasich, retiring Congressman Fred Upton, and departing Maryland Governor Larry Hogan as three examples of Republicans who could unite the center and include two conditions: 

First, House members must nominate a plausible candidate to whom disaffected moderates in the Republican caucus can rally and whom Democrats recognize as a promising partner in building cross-party coalitions. 

Second, there must be a secret ballot for speaker that would free individual members—primarily Republicans, but also some Democrats—to vote for such a candidate without fearing reprisal in a future party primary.

These seem fair enough at first glance. Surely, deep down, there are enough Republicans out there who are disgusted by their colleagues in the Freedom Caucus, who only pay lip service to the Trump and Tucker Carlson–ification of their party, and, deep down, only want to be part of a functional body dedicated toward advancing the public good. The related idea that Democrats could come to the aid of the GOP, by supplying the necessary votes for either a speaker like McCarthy or one from outside the current Congress, relies on similar thinking—that reasonable members of Congress might band together to nominate one of their own, sidelining the extremists of both parties in the process. 

The fact that they can only imagine this coming by way of a secret ballot damns this idea to absurdity. The authors understand fully that most members of the Republican caucus wouldn’t be caught dead publicly proclaiming their support for someone like Larry Hogan. Even Kasich, who once described himself as “in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party,” would be persona non grata. Similarly, many Democrats would also rightly catch hell for backing a speaker who was against reproductive rights or intent on slashing social services.

Furthermore, how would this body be expected to function in the future? Would every vote be taken via secret ballot? Would constituents not have reason to complain about the lack of transparency? This zany process would only paper over a chaotic situation in which absurd political demands prevented the House of Representatives from functioning by its regular order. 

The bigger problem, however, is that the very idea that such a deal could be wrought is a complete fantasia. As the authors also note, “The sad fact is that the Republican caucus is dominated by campaigns and commitments that gravely encumber efforts to define common ground in the political center.” Oh, you think? The vast majority of the Republican caucus has little to no interest in governing and would, instead, like to spend its time launching frivolous investigations into Joe Biden. 

How much of their own political project should Democrats be expected to sacrifice simply to help the House GOP caucus solve its own stupid problems? Kasich, perhaps the most frequently cited pick as a “consensus” speaker, campaigned aggressively on cutting social spending, another top GOP priority. Why would Democrats give their blessing to this? Furthermore, what would the hypothetical consensus speaker do about the debt ceiling? This is among the biggest issues facing the next Congress, and there is simply no reason to expect Republicans to punt on these matters simply to install a speaker. If they were to punt on issues like this, they would spend the next two years in the barrel of nonstop conservative media coverage and likely earn themselves a primary opponent willing to pass the necessary purity tests.

Would a Kasich-led House of Representatives be more functional than a McCarthy one? In some universe, it’s surely possible. In this one, the idea that a “moderate” speaker is a magic bullet that would cure the Republican Party’s lycanthrophic tendencies is far-fetched, to say the least. The same forces that have dictated the GOP’s rapid rightward turn would still be pushing the party rightward; the same pressures to investigate Hunter Biden would still exist; the Freedom Caucus might be more marginalized—a good thing in and of itself!—but there is little reason to believe that the non–Freedom Caucusing Republicans would therefore hold hands with their buddies across the aisle on a host of shared priorities.  

The idea of a unity speaker is a particularly American fantasy. There is a long-held dream, appearing most often in movies (and the oeuvre of Aaron Sorkin especially), that holds that deep down, Americans agree on just about everything. In this telling, the real source of our acrimony is not politics but politicians and if we could magically break the two-party system, they would all band together, sing kumbaya, and do all of the things that we all secretly agree are really great. It’s an appealing notion, but it’s a fantasy, this idea that you can achieve political ends without doing politics—that there exists a kinder, gentler form of political engagement that simply does what the people want. That’s not how it works. You saw how Republicans got caught in a trap of their own making this week? That’s how it works!