With current Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner’s announcement this morning that he will resign by the end of October of this year, the US has come to the close of an era. Fittingly, while Boehner’s initial plan was simply not to seek reelection and leave at the end of his current term, the perpetual upheaval within the Republican caucus has prompted him to step down not only from his leadership position within it but as a member of congress in any capacity.
Initially swept into his current prominence by the 2010 election and perceived as a staunch conservative, his inability to usher in the type of policy prescriptions expected of him alienated him from a large portion of his own party. Even as he settled more comfortably into a more “moderate” wing, his rule remained anemic. Its end isn’t all that surprising given past contentions over whether Republicans, mostly motivated by conservative ideals, should support his continued leadership.
To a certain degree this is the fruition of those prior conflicts, with one of the comparatively less extreme members of the Republican Party picking up his ball and going home. The inevitable question is who will replace him, but a key consideration seems to be missing from the public conversation. Boehner in part rode off of momentum as the person already in the job during his reelection as Speaker. While some Republicans presented ideological challenges either to his decisions or for his position, few strategically sought to replace him because his place wasn’t all that enviable.
Crafting a consensus between increasingly hostile portions of the same political part is not only difficult but had seemingly become entirely unrewarding under Boehner’s watch. The most level-headed assessments of who could replace Boehner implicitly recognize that and ask who could best mobilize off of already having that type of role in Congress to be an acceptable if not terribly desirable Speaker for a majority of representatives. In short, who can reproduce Boehner’s careful triangulation between extremist roots, moderate palatability, and party procedural inevitability.
Maybe the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House of Representatives will return to their historical norm of reaching stable their own stable consensus on their nominee for Speaker before the official vote, allowing the current Republican majority to prevail without whomever they pick. Potentially, even if that fails, a similar outcome to the last vote on Speaker could happen where an acceptable candidate can be found in spite of shifting certainties in their suitability – most likely a resigned selection of current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
That said, with the more internally stable Democratic Party gerrymandered into a permanent minority and the Republican Party only increasing in internal divisions if Boehner’s departure is any indication, it’s unclear who could actually fashion a majority in the House – and that would paralyze the body. It can only proceed to voting on any other issue after the selection of a new Speaker whenever a new one is needed. Within the US’s pseudo-parliamentary system, this is the closest equivalent to a hung parliament.
The US has weathered this sort of dysfunction before, namely immediately proceeding the Civil War when between Republicans, Democrats, and various other factions, no single party held a majority in the House. Similar conditions cropped up briefly in the early twentieth century when either the Progressive or Farmer-Labor parties held crucial votes needed by either the Republicans or Democrats for form a majority. In all of those cases political divisions within the US had already led to the development of a three-party system. At least on the surface, that’s not the current case.
The modern hostility to third parties (for, among other things, creating those types of problems) has prevented that sort of dissolution of the Republican Party into overtly competing factions. Instead, two increasingly diametrically opposed groups have taken their contest for power into their primaries and struggled to work with a divided assortment of elected officials among those who clear the general elections. As a result, the US may soon see the level of administrative dysfunction associated with having three parties, but none of the open discussion of issues that division typically prompts with the competition hidden for the most part in local elections and primaries.