How the GOP Will Split Apart Next Year

In recent days I’ve written that Paul Ryan’s Speakership Will End and that, therefore, Our Future is Not in Paul Ryan’s Hands. For further evidence of this, I note that Dana Milbank reports that Paul Ryan has already considered resigning as Speaker.

Trump’s depredations have left Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican in the land, in a no-win situation. He could revoke his Trump endorsement, but this would require resigning the speakership, because a majority of GOP caucus members are from heavily conservative districts where Trump is popular. They, like Trump and his legions, are already furious with Ryan, and his criticism of Trump only makes them angrier. I’m told Ryan considered resigning, but this would accomplish little beyond generating more chaos in an already ungovernable GOP caucus.

I’m not sure if I quite agree with how Milbank characterizes Ryan’s situation, but it’s close enough for our purposes in projecting Ryan’s future. He might not need to resign immediately to unendorse Trump, but what we’re actually concerned about are his prospects for winning the Speakership in the next Congress. If he’s already considered resigning, that tells you that he knows he doesn’t have much of a chance (let alone any real desire) to retain the Speaker’s gavel. Yet, there’s no need to create more division and confusion in the last three weeks of the presidential campaign, nor to create chaos in the coming lameduck session of Congress. Ryan will probably stick it out to the end of the year, but the Wednesday after Election Night may bring a sorrowful press conference where Ryan announces his retirement or at least his desire to go back to chairing the Ways & Means Committee and be done with taking responsibility for his fractious caucus and passing Democratic presidents’ spending bills.

If he surprises me and runs for Speaker again, the whole weight of Trump’s hordes will come down on the House Republican caucus like a ton of anti-globalist bricks.

So, what will happen when Ryan is no longer a candidate?

Again, we’re assuming here that Clinton wins the presidency and the Republicans retain a narrower majority in the House.

The Republicans will search around for someone who is willing to take the job of passing spending bills that President Clinton won’t veto. But the standard they’ll set for their candidate is that they won’t pass spending bills that President Clinton will sign. Only a fool would volunteer for such an assignment, and only someone dishonest could fulfill both roles at once.

The House Republican caucus will struggle to find a candidate and they will struggle even more to unite around that candidate. It may very well prove impossible, but, if so, that won’t become clear immediately.

The first order of business will be pushing someone who is completely free of all accusations that they stabbed Trump in the back. Anyone else will be unacceptable to Trump and his Breitbart/Hannity driven fire breathers.

If they succeed in uniting around someone, that candidate will have marching orders that make it clear that Clinton’s agenda and budget are dead on arrival. Paul Ryan couldn’t pass a budget this year and he and McConnell have not passed a single appropriations bill. The next Speaker will fare no better, and they’ll need to pass continuing resolutions to avoid a government shutdown. Before long, they’ll need to extend the debt ceiling again. They’ll fail at both unless they’re willing to rely on a minority of their own caucus going along with almost all Democrats.

Just as Boehner fell in the exact same situation, the new Speaker will fall.

Just as water will always find a way, the need to pay our bills on time will eventually force a “responsible” faction of House Republicans to conclude that, for the creditworthiness of the country and the health of the global economy, it is no longer possible to caucus with their intransigent brethren. This would have happened in 2015 if Boehner hadn’t agreed to step down in return for getting the votes to keep the government open and extend the debt ceiling. This may be the same exact price the next Speaker strikes on their way out the door.

But, eventually, the logic of the thing will become inescapable. There needs to be a coherent majority in the House that pays the bills, and if that majority isn’t defined on a strict R and D axis, so be it.

The Democrats may play a role here, too. If they’re smart, they will. There’s no good reason for House Democrats to continue to sit in the minority on the Appropriations and Budget committees, having no say in how our money is spent, and then be expected to near-uniformly pass the spending bills and continuing resolutions that the Republicans crafted. They may have to engage in their own form of brinksmanship (risking financial chaos) to convince moderate Republicans to join them in electing a “responsible” Speaker who will represent the “governing” majority.

However it happens, eventually the crisis will reach a point where it becomes clear that the Speaker must not try to govern based on political support from a majority of Republicans, but actually the reverse. Logically, a compromise would involve a moderate Republican leading this bipartisan coalition. Someone like Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania would make sense.

And once this coalition is formally created, the GOP will have been rendered in two. The smaller group, which will actually be in partnership with the Democrats, will represent the interests of the Bushes, Romneys, Chamber of Commerce, and responsible business interests, as well as the entire lobbying apparatus in DC. The larger group, representing most of the elected Republicans in Washington, will be in the minority and taking on an ever-more populist and antiestablishment Trumpian flavor.

In other words, Trump will have taken over the Republican Party.

There are many reasons to believe this, or something that closely resembles it, will play out next year. More than anything else, it’s the absolute necessity that some majority forms in the House that will pay our debts and keep the government open. Anything that stands in the way of either of those two things will eventually be sidelined and stripped of power. I can see no way that the House Republicans (if they maintain a majority) can pay our bills, keep our government open, and continue to support a leader who advocates those things. So, they won’t and responsible people will react as they must.

This is a broad brush attempt to draw the outlines of next year, but we could get more granular. In the aftermath of the election, the “establishment” Republicans will attempt to get the better of the argument and go back to arguing that they should pass immigration reform. They’ll find few elected members willing to risk a primary to back them. Clinton will offer a plateful of proposals designed to gain Republican support (perhaps on trade, more clearly on tax reform and criminal justice reform), but these things will only further split the GOP and inflame their civil war.

Needless to say, I don’t see Paul Ryan playing a role in any of this. If he does, he’ll be taken down quickly or give up in frustration.

Things will look much different if the House and Senate fall to the Democrats. In that case, the House Republicans would no longer have the responsibility of passing bills to keep the government open or to pay our bills on time. They could lick their wounds in peace. They could have their ideological battle on their own time without it having too much negative impact on our country, the economy or the world.

But if the Republicans retain the House, the party will not be able to govern and it will split.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.