After multiple attempts to elect a new speaker of the House, Republicans on Wednesday selected Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as their leader. The process was messy and unnecessary and, for me, raised comparisons to the 1962 New York Mets.
The 1962 Mets were perhaps the worst professional baseball team ever assembled. Throughout 162 games, they won just 40, an ignoble team record that could stand for generations. Famed New York journalist Jimmy Breslin chronicled the folly on the baseball diamond in a book titled “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” I was reminded of Breslin’s book as I watched some House Republicans, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), join with Democrats to remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) earlier this month. Not only was the effort damaging to the unity and effectiveness of the Republican conference but it was done without a compelling and comprehensive plan to replace him.
The handful of rebels who teamed with the Democrats to remove McCarthy and many grassroots conservatives fundamentally misunderstood how leadership elections work. They are
not ideological tests. They are competency tests.
This will sound like heresy to some readers, I realize, but members of Congress must be able to interact with their leaders, trust that they will make decisions in their best interests, and move an effective agenda, all while protecting the majority. Daily interactions mean something. More than anyone else, members know who is competent to lead and who is not.
House leaders are responsible primarily for navigating and leading a regionally and ideologically diverse group of members of Congress, each of whom has a different agenda, vision, and approach to the job. From multimillionaire CEOs to schoolteachers and gym coaches, members of Congress are a cross-section of the nation. Some members are ideological bomb-throwers; others are not. Many are just looking to protect the interests of their districts and survive another election cycle. We used to call organizing the members and moving them forward in one direction “herding cats.”
Those seeking leadership positions often begin their campaigns by helping fellow members, explicitly helping the most vulnerable. Members of key committees will use their influence to help pass needed legislation for members in need. More influential and established members often raise campaign funds for entities that help get members elected and re-elected.
Some members with name recognition and grassroots followings will spend weeks, if not months, on the road doing campaign events for their colleagues. It is difficult and can take a personal toll, especially for elected officials with young children. It is a sacrifice, and many are not cut out for it. Over time, these events play a significant role in determining who will lead the House.
Although not as ideological as other members, McCarthy was a strategic thinker credited with raising over $200 million, all used to elect a Republican majority. Once elected, he placed key conservatives in positions of power. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), for instance, once opposed McCarthy, yet McCarthy placed him on the January 6 Select Committee and made him chairman of the Judiciary Committee, despite members typically needing more seniority for such a position.
McCarthy also placed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on conference committees to ensure that MAGA conservatives received maximum power and representation this legislative session. For this reason, even Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), one of the most consistent conservatives in the House and an ardent opponent of former Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, defended McCarthy, declaring he was the most transparent leader he encountered since being elected to Congress.
Rather than appreciate the time, effort, and dedication required to undertake the historic achievement of replacing Nancy Pelosi as speaker, Gaetz derided McCarthy for this effort. He stood on the House floor, accusing McCarthy of being a swamp monster, pooh-poohing the four-year campaign to win a majority. Gaetz raised significant campaign contributions and gave less than $15,000 to help his colleagues. While leaders understand leading is a team sport, Gaetz seemed to prefer an every-man-for-himself approach.
At their core, members of Congress are human beings, and as soon as the ink is dry on their election certificates, their fight-or-flight instincts kick in and they immediately begin their re-election campaigns. Survival, for many, trumps almost everything. That requires leaders to be sensitive to the needs of members like Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) and Mike Garcia (R-Calif.), who were elected in districts that Joe Biden won by sizable margins, as well as members who were elected in highly conservative districts that Donald Trump won by more than 20 points. Leaders respect and navigate that delicate balance. The last thing a leader wants is to put his vulnerable members in a position where they lose their next election and, ultimately, the majority.
This is particularly true this year as Republicans try to preserve their slight majority by winning seats in areas like upstate New York. More than a dozen Republicans were elected in districts Biden won and will face the voters again in less than 13 months.
Unlike the Senate, where every individual member has the power to stop or significantly slow down the legislative agenda through various tactics, the House is designed to promote teamwork. That teamwork requires understanding that the chain is as strong as the weakest link. A leader can’t promote an agenda if it would cost members their seats in the next election.
But the rebels did not seem to care. Gaetz rattled off a list of bills he deemed important and blamed McCarthy for their failure to become law. Suggesting that the speaker is responsible for these failures is nonsense. McCarthy cannot override the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, nor can he force President Biden to sign bills into law.
Changing the course of government often takes years, if not decades. It took William Wilberforce two decades to end the slave trade in Great Britain. Changing government policy does not happen overnight, and it won’t change by replacing the speaker.
Today’s conservatives need to learn to play the game. In the past, conservatives like former House Majority Leaders Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Dick Armey (R-Texas) climbed the leadership ladder without abandoning their principles. But they weren’t kamikaze pilots — they were legislators.
Gaetz and company would prefer to burn the majority to the ground rather than do the complex, challenging, and time-consuming work of legislating. Thanks to their foibles, whether the Republican majority can still be saved in 2024 remains in question.
The 1962 Mets, incredibly, had several All-Stars and future Hall of Famers in their lineup. Yet despite having this talent (admittedly on the waning side of their careers), the team failed. The GOP conference similarly has its share of stars; that said, unless they can play as a unit, they too will end up in the trash heap of history. When a team becomes nothing more than individuals flexing their muscles and deriding their teammates, it becomes destined to fail.
This is the lesson that Mike Johnson must remember as he takes up the speaker’s gavel. Johnson has a challenging task ahead of him as he restores trust. Still, I remain optimistic that he can restore the sense of teamwork, a critical element of an effective Congress.
Evan Tanner is a pen name for a former senior House leadership aide involved in numerous House leadership races.