A couple of weeks ago, I noted that you don’t have to be in Congress to be elected speaker of the House, and joked that Donald Trump might even get the gig. (This was before I told you that Boehner had a 50 percent chance of being toppled and before I said it was possible he would resign after Pope Francis’s speech. But I was also ahead of the curve in floating the names of random figures that could theoretically become speaker.)
Let me be honest: I think it’s crazy that you don’t have to be in Congress to get to be speaker. It’s right up there with the notion that you don’t have to be a judge—or even a lawyer—to be on the Supreme Court. I mean, this would be like putting someone in Yankee Stadium that never played Little League. It would be like electing someone president who never held any elected office (OK, maybe that’s a bad example).
Right now, three people who’ve never been elected to anything are garnering a combined total of more than 50 percent of the vote in polls. But here’s the thing: The public gets to decide who our next president is. The great unwashed masses. I suspect if only elected officials had the vote, the idea of electing someone who has never even been elected dog catcher would sound even less likely.
Regardless, my throwaway line about “Speaker Trump” was likely just the first such suggestion we will see. Over at National Review, Jonah Goldberg floats the idea of another Newt Gingrich speakership. “Gingrich was the architect of the ‘Contract with America,’” Goldberg reminds us. “He led Republicans to the first congressional majority in 40 years. His speakership was not without faults, but Gingrich has matured. At 72, he is literally an elder statesman of the party and still one of its most gifted communicators.”
This is all true. And unlike most of the other names of non-members bandied about, Gingrich actually once was the Speaker of the House. Not only has he been elected to something in the past, he has been elected to this job.
Not that that matters much.
Just as my line about Speaker Trump was more rhetorical flourish than realistic commentary, the Gingrich idea is similarly destined to go nowhere—even though it’s fun to imagine Newt and the gavel together again.
There is a certain artistic license that columnists—who must churn out prolific content—must grant one another. And I have no doubt there’s room for more speculation and hypothetical scenarios.
Speaker Cheney, anyone? How about Speaker Romney?
Seriously, this meme could keep us all busy for the next week.
But here’s the truth. Why would any of the self-important geniuses elected to Congress deign to promote someone not elected to Congress to be their boss? They wouldn’t.
A president might nominate a Supreme Court justice who has never been a judge, and the public might elect a non-politician president, but does anybody think you could get eight sitting justices to pick someone who has never even argued in court to be their Chief Justice any more than you could get members of Congress to voluntarily elevate someone who’s never been elected to anything as their boss?
Besides, barring some huge and unforeseeable stumble, Kevin McCarthy has this in the bag.
It’s really hard to handicap these races since, by definition, they are insider-y (only members can vote) and also secretive (literally, there’s a secret ballot). But there seems to be three things that matter in leadership races:
1). Geography. You can’t have a speaker from California and a majority leader from, say, Washington State (sorry, Cathy McMorris Rodgers). It would be much better to balance it with someone from the South (good news, Tom Price!).
3). Personal relationships.
Maybe someday ethnic or gender diversity will factor into these decisions, creating a sort of unofficial affirmative action. Thus far, at least on the Republican side, that hasn’t factored too much into these upper-echelon leadership decisions—the top three people in the House GOP will still be white men after this election. Instead, each leadership battle is decided by at least one of these things (and sometimes a combination).
Despite the fact that his ideology isn’t any better than Boehner’s, McCarthy wins by virtue of the third thing. Not only is he the next guy in line, but he has a very good personal relationships with most of the House—and even helped recruit some of the more recalcitrant members. This not only suggests he will easily win the speakership, but it also suggests that his long-term goal of changing the dysfunctional House culture that drove out Boehner might just work.
The conventional wisdom is that McCarthy will come up short. He’s an uninspiring empty suit, the thinking goes, who’s only likely to serve through the election. Nobody is really hot on him becoming Speaker, so why not fantasize of bringing Newt back from the fields? Still, the depressing reality is that the caucus is so hopelessly divided that they’re going to have to ride out the next year and change with a squishy yet inoffensive guy from California.
Or maybe McCarthy surprises everyone. He does know how the game is played. We live in a culture that places increasingly little emphasis on experience or institutions, and increasingly fetishizes charisma and celebrity. We can’t pretend these trends don’t matter, or that they won’t impact our politics. But leadership races in Congress are likely to be the last place where they matter. This is perhaps the last refuge of the retail pol who counts votes, makes friends, does favors, and climbs the greasy pole all the way to the Speakership.
Besides, Kevin McCarthy is young-ish and charismatic-ish—and he would become the least experienced speaker in history. So to some degree, he’s already perhaps the fulfillment of these trends. And who knows? Maybe he turns into the man the moment demands.