Much of what you need to know about the state of the Republican Party can be gleaned from last week’s spectacular debacle on Capitol Hill. The party that hopes to retake the nation’s highest office next year by appealing to a broad cross-section of voters around the country is the same party that is currently unable to muster a consensus among its own, mostly white, mostly male House members tasked with selecting their own leader.
In a stunning turn of events, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy withdrew his name from consideration to succeed John Boehner as Speaker. McCarthy explained to House GOP members that he didn’t want his supporters to take heat for voting for him — likely an allusion to the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus. That coalition of 30 to 40 members has given Boehner fits during his Speakership, and they might not be done yet as Boehner has said he’ll remain until a successor is chosen.
Another, less credible explanation for McCarthy’s decision involves a rumor of an affair he allegedly had with Rep. Renee Ellmers, and a curiously-timed letter from Rep. Walter Jones urging Speaker candidates who have committed any “misdeeds” that could “embarrass” the party or House to withdraw from contention.
Whatever the reason for McCarthy’s withdrawal, the Republican caucus is now in shambles. Many names have been bandied about as possible replacements for Boehner: Daniel Webster, Jason Chaffetz, Marsha Blackburn, Lynn Westmoreland, and Paul Ryan, among others. Budget hawk Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, is presently the focus of an intense drafting campaign by conservatives inside and outside the House because he’s seen as one of the few well-known members who could appeal to the likes of both the Freedom Caucus and more moderate representatives. For his part, Ryan wants nothing to do with the position.
This strange, chaotic episode is an almost perfect microcosm for what’s happening to the Republican Party as a whole. Nationally, the party is experiencing a leadership vacuum. That explains why it currently has a farrago of fools as presidential candidates, and why very plausible cases can be made for the nomination of eight or nine of them.
But then what?
Like the next Speaker, who will likely require the blessing of at least a good chunk of the Freedom Caucus to assume the gavel, the next Republican presidential nominee will have to appeal to a relatively small and shrill bloc of conservative voters to win the nomination.
But by the time the Republicans’ Andy Dufresne crawls through the sewage pipe we call the Republican primaries, no amount of soap and water will be able to wash off the stench that comes with having pandered to the GOP base — the electorate’s version of the Freedom Caucus — for a year plus. As such, the nominee will be wholly repulsive on issues such as same-sex marriage, immigration, and women's reproductive rights, to a more diverse and liberal electorate that is increasingly feeling as though Republicans are stuck in the past, because they are.
True, the more “serious” contenders hold less offensive positions than irredeemable nutters such as Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum. But “moderates” like Jeb Bush can get away with saying that same-sex marriage should be left to the states for only so long before they too are seen as relics of earlier and less tolerant times. Declaring that civil rights in any form is a states rights issue is the final rhetorical refuge of a political and moral coward; or worse, a bigot.
Such disconnect is one reason the Republican nominee has won the popular vote just once in the last six elections. And though it's certainly possible a Republican who more or less espouses the current party platform could win one or two more presidential elections, that will be the upper limit under the current GOP worldview. Republicans will still be able to thrive at the state level in the legislatures and governors' mansions, as well as federally in the House. But as long as the GOP refuses to acknowledge the changed -- not changing, but changed -- cultural landscape, it will soon cease to be a truly national political force both in the executive branch and in the Senate, where elections in states with growing Latino populations are becoming too close for a GOP used to ignoring or even demonizing Hispanics.
Eventually, establishment Republicans will get the message if they have not already. Their current model for attempting to win national elections is an abject failure that will only become more ridiculous with time barring a seismic shift in thinking. Until that happens, the Republican Party will become increasingly irrelevant in presidential politics.