Republicans Grapple With Being Speakerless, but Effectively Leaderless, Too

Kevin McCarthy, the ousted speaker, was making his way through the Capitol when reporters asked what he thought of the chaos consuming House Republicans, who for nearly three weeks have been trying and failing to replace him.

His answer veered into the existential. “We are,” he said on Friday, “in a very bad place right now.”

That might be an understatement.

In the House, Republicans are casting about for a new leader, mired in an internecine battle marked by screaming, cursing and a fresh flood of candidates. In the Senate, their party is led by Senator Mitch McConnell, who spent weeks arguing that he remained physically and mentally fit enough for the position after freezing midsentence in two public appearances. And on the 2024 campaign trail, the dominant front-runner, Donald J. Trump, faces 91 felony charges across four cases, creating a drumbeat of legal news that often overwhelms any of his party’s political messages.

As national Democrats largely stand behind President Biden and his agenda — more united than in years — Republicans are divided, directionless and effectively leaderless.

For years, Mr. Trump has domineered Republican politics, with a reach that could end careers, create new political stars and upend the party’s long-held ideology on issues like trade, China and federal spending. He remains the party’s nominal leader, capturing a majority of G.O.P. voters in national polling and holding a double-digit lead in early voting states.

And yet his commanding position has turned Republicans into a party of one, demanding absolute loyalty to Mr. Trump and his personal feuds and pet causes, such as his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The result is an endless loop of chaos that even some Republicans say once again threatens to define the party’s brand heading into an election in which Republicans — after struggling to meet the basic responsibilities of governing the House of Representatives — will ask voters to also put them in charge of the Senate and the White House.

“This looks like a group of 11th graders trying to pick the junior class president, and it will hurt our party long term,” said former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is challenging Mr. Trump for the party nomination. “It’s going to be very hard to make the case that the American people should turn over control of the government to Republicans when you can’t even elect a speaker.”

In recent months, the former president has focused more on his own legal peril than on his party. Flouting pressure from the Republican National Committee, Mr. Trump has largely opted out of some of the party’s biggest moments. He skipped the first two Republican primary debates for his own events and plans to skip the third, forgoing a chance to present his party’s message to an audience of millions.

And he has largely taken a hands-off approach to the fight over the House speakership. Nine months ago, he helped install Mr. McCarthy as speaker. But he did not come to Mr. McCarthy’s rescue this fall when Representative Matt Gaetz led the charge to oust him. He then endorsed Representative Jim Jordan, who has failed to win enough support.

Political parties out of power typically lack a strong leader. In 2016, Mr. Trump’s election plunged Democrats into years of ideological battles between a restive liberal wing and a more moderate establishment. But what’s less typical — and perhaps more politically damaging, some Republicans said — is the drawn-out, televised turmoil putting the internal dysfunction on public display.

“It’s kind of a captainless pirate ship right now — a Black Pearl with no Jack Sparrow,” said Ralph Reed, a prominent social conservative leader, who argued that the issues would eventually be resolved. “But on the bright side, we will have a speaker at some point.”

“These Republicans are complete idiots,” Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator, said on a radio program last week.

Mr. McConnell all but threw up his hands in interviews on the Sunday talk shows. “It’s a problem,” he said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “We’re going to do our job and hope the House can get functional here sometime soon.”

And The Wall Street Journal editorial board, long a bastion of establishment Republican thought, wrote more than a week into the drama: “As the current mess in choosing another House Speaker shows, never underestimate the ability of Republicans to commit electoral suicide.”

Most frustrating to some Republicans is the fact that the messy battle is largely symbolic. Democrats control the Senate and the White House, meaning that whoever becomes speaker has little chance of making their agenda into law.

Still, there could be real-world political implications. As Republicans battled one another, Mr. Biden focused on an actual war. He spent much of last week building support for Israel, with a wartime visit and an Oval Office prime-time appeal for $105 billion in aid to help Israel and Ukraine — funds that face an uncertain future in a House frozen by infighting.

It’s a split screen Democrats are more than happy to highlight.

“The president of the United States, a Democrat, gave the strongest pro-Israel speech, at least since Harry Truman, maybe in American history,” said Representative Jake Auchincloss, a moderate Democrat from Massachusetts. “The division is on the Republican side of the aisle, where they are so fractured they can’t even elect a leader of their conference.”

Mike DuHaime, a veteran Republican strategist who is advising Mr. Christie, said the inability to pick a speaker was a “new low” for Republican governance. “If you don’t have the presidency there is no clear leader of the party,” he said. “That’s natural. What’s unnatural here is that we can’t run our own caucus.”

But others say that Mr. Trump, along with social media and conservative media, has turned the very incentive structure of the party upside down. With a broad swath of the conservative base firmly behind the former president, there may be little political cost in causing chaos. The eight Republicans who voted to oust Mr. McCarthy, for example, are likely to face no backlash for plunging the party into disarray. As their message is amplified across conservative media, they’re more likely to see their political stars rise, with a boost in fund-raising and attention.

“What’s happening is you have people who don’t want to be led, but also want to engineer a situation where they can be betrayed and use that to rail against leadership,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist and former National Republican Senatorial Committee aide.

Some Republicans doubt the incident will have a lasting impact. In the summer, the party will pick a nominee at its national convention, and that person will become Republicans’ new standard-bearer.

Nicole McCleskey, a Republican pollster, said the messy dust-up in the House would be forgotten by next November’s elections, washed away as just another moment of broken government amid near-record lows for voters’ trust in Congress.

“People are used to Washington dysfunction, and this is just another episode,” she said. “It’s Republicans and Democrats, and they’re all dysfunctional. For voters, it’s just further evidence that Washington can’t address their problems.”

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