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House Republicans Cement Quarter-Century Lock on Melodrama at the Top

Boehner ascended to the speakership in 2011. It hasn't been as smooth since. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

These two weeks have been an intense reminder about how unstable the speakership of the House has become. Thursday put a shocking spotlight on another reality: Republicans have had nothing but unexpected heartache in choosing their own leaders in the past quarter-century.  

The congressional world has continued to turn, and the party has managed to regain power after losing it, but not without enduring some of the most melodramatic episodes in memory during times of leadership transition in the House GOP.  

This was highlighted with exceptional clarity by Kevin McCarthy’s out-of-the-blue decision to abandon his quest to become speaker, even as he stood minutes away from winning the nomination of his colleagues with the support of perhaps 80 percent of his caucus. His announcement made him, in all but the most official terms, the second out of the past four anointed Republican candidates for the top job in the House who has taken himself out of the running at effectively the final hour. The closest recent parallel, for its sense of cataclysmic total surprise, occurred just six days before Christmas 1998, when Bob Livingston astounded the House by taking the floor to renounce the speakership, for which he’d been nominated a month earlier and was assured of attaining in just two weeks.  

There are important differences between the two situations. For starters, Livingston got replaced as speaker-designate within a few hours by J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Now, it could be days — if not weeks, before House Republicans are ready to make another choice.  

Livingston soon gave up his Appropriations chairmanship and his Louisiana congressional seat and has made millions as a lobbying rainmaker. California’s McCarthy says he’ll remain majority leader and is positioned to play kingmaker in picking “a new face” to lead the House majority.  

Livingston’s rise had been fueled by his work quietly engineering the collapse of GOP confidence in his old political ally, Speaker Newt Gingrich. McCarthy was hoping his rise would not be derailed because his public collaborations with his relatively new political patron, Speaker John A. Boehner.  

The spark for Livingston’s astonishing move had been his admission only two days earlier to having extramarital affairs “on occasion,” a politically untenable concession as his caucus was preparing to impeach President Bill Clinton for his own indiscretions. (When Livingston came to the well of the House as the impeachment debate began, he had to endure a shouted chorus of “You resign!” from the Democrats before he could do just that.)  

The tinder under McCarthy’s bombshell was his own realization, seemingly sealed only Thursday morning, that he stood little chance of ever becoming an effective steward of the House – certainly not in time to help the party win back the presidency next year, and maybe never if his deal-cutting efforts with his combative conservative detractors came up short. (There was a shouted question about his personal life’s effect on his decision when McCarthy came to the microphones in the Longworth Building lobby, but the congressman waved it off.)  

But at their heart, the two renunciations of power share this much in common: Both were passion plays aimed at atonement. Both men, still in the first half of their 50s, were a step from the pinnacle of congressional power. Both decided their clearest route to a decent legacy — not to mention personal serenity — was to get out of the way just before they became labeled indelibly as polarizing lightning rods who had done real damage to the GOP brand.  

Those two exits may stand out for their soap operatic feel, but they do not stand alone in the annals of the modern House Republican Conference.  

Gingrich’s arrival as the voice of a new generation of conservative combatants was heralded with a stunning upset (by a single vote) of establishment favorite Edward Madigan of Illinois in a 1989 election for party whip. Four years later, he assured himself the top job in the House GOP by dragooning the avuncular Robert H. Michel of Illinois to announce his retirement lest he be deposed in public.  

During his time as speaker, Gingrich was nearly forced out by his own troops on two occasions — an abortive putsch and a no-confidence floor vote — before being steered with Livingston’s help to the exits.  

And when Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas finally resigned after running out his ethical string at the end of his decade at the core of leadership, it was another stunning upset that returned Boehner to the forefront as floor leader (eight years after he was dispatched by his peers from the party hierarchy) at the expense of DeLay’s own deputy, Roy Blunt of Missouri, who’s gone on to start rebuilding his leadership bone fides as a senator.  

The record run of Hastert, the “accidental speaker” who ended up in the job longer than any other Republican, and the unchallenged ascent of Boehner to the speakership after the 2010 takeover — those are the exceptions that underscore this rule: House Republicans, for all their talk about a commitment to teamwork and a craving for a return to unification, haven’t really honored either characteristic for almost three decades.  

McCarthy is not Exhibit 1 for this; he’s more like Exhibit 7. The next GOP member who becomes third in the line of presidential succession can only hope to avoid getting labeled as the Not-so-Great 8.

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