[This article was contributed by Arthur I. Cyr, author of "After the Cold War -- American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia" (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He has taught at the Universities of Chicago and Illinois, Northwestern University, and Carthage College (Clausen Distinguished Professor).]
KENOSHA -- Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) fall as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has been especially sudden and dramatic but is only the latest example of intense, internal Republican Party warfare. McCarthy himself opened the door to ouster when he agreed in the long, grueling battle for the speakership in January to allow a rule change whereby only one member of his party could call a vote for his removal.
Right-wing attention-seeker Matt Gaetz (R-FL) did just that on October 2, filing a resolution to remove the Speaker. The motion passed 216-210, with Democrats piling through the door a member of the other party had opened.
Speakers John Boehner (R-OH) 2011~20l5, and Paul Ryan (R-WI) 2015~2017, had relatively turbulent terms in office.
By contrast, the first woman Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), was able to maintain relatively strong party discipline during her two stints from 2007~2011 and 2019-23.
A small group of House Republicans are fundamentally opposed to government, period. A shutdown is for them welcome, no matter how inconvenient for working people in government, and in the wider economy.
Right-wing Republicans threatened to oust Boehner if he permitted a federal budget to be passed which included funding for Planned Parenthood. Controversial videos that allege a callous attitude by that organization regarding the use of fetuses greatly stoked the always emotional debate over abortion.
In 2013, Republicans managed to shut down the government for sixteen days as part of the effort to derail the Affordable Care Act. Then as later, Democrats led by President Barack Obama used the Republican effort for partisan political advantage.
Boehner retired under this pressure. Thereby he headed off another shutdown.
The practice of holding the federal budget hostage to controversial partisan party maneuvers has now gone on for many years. In 1994, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives after forty years in minority status. Their majority was led by a new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who dramatically accelerated the trend of shifting that office from a relatively nonpartisan to a highly partisan pulpit.
Then as now, White House Democrats and Congressional Republicans played an escalating game of budgetary chicken. The federal government was shut down briefly. In the political and public media maneuvering, President Bill Clinton was able to put the onus squarely on the Gingrich Republicans.
Publicly cool and politically cunning, Clinton moved ahead in the public opinion polls. He was helped by emphasizing fiscal restraint. In the 1996 presidential election, he defeated Republican nominee Senator Bob Dole (R-KS).
Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas remains distinctive as a remarkably durable Speaker of the House. From the 1940s into the 1960s, he successfully practiced bipartisanship, despite the difficult politics of that era.
Rayburn holds the record for longest service as Speaker of the House, seventeen years. He accumulated this tenure during three separate terms in the post, 1940-47, 1949-53, and 1955-61. Rayburn possessed exceptional political skills.
That was not a less partisan time than today, but the divisions between the two major parties were not so stark in ideological terms. The Southern states were overwhelmingly Democratic but also conservative outside of economic populism, while the Northeast was the anchor of the relatively moderate to liberal wing of the Republican Party.
Today’s Democrats and Republicans are separated emotionally and ideologically, which makes leadership even harder.
Speaker Pelosi’s relatively lengthy, stable tenure may directly benefit the Democrats in the presidential race next year.
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