WASHINGTON – The Republican Party is in chaos, desperately in search of a leader.
In the unruly House of Representatives, Republicans enjoy a near-historic majority, yet deep divisions between ultra-conservatives and more traditional lawmakers have left them at a loss over who should be in charge.
In the Republican presidential primary, experienced governors and senators — long the party’s national leaders in waiting — are overshadowed by outsiders like billionaire businessman Donald Trump who only seem to get stronger as they challenge the establishment.
Trump even claimed he helped push Rep. Kevin McCarthy out of the race for House speaker this past week, a shocking pullback from one of the most powerful jobs in Washington by a lawmaker seen as the heir apparent.
“They’re giving me a lot of credit for that, because I said you really need somebody very, very tough,” said Trump, who has led Republican primary polls throughout the summer and fall.
McCarthy was felled by the same factors that led current Speaker John Boehner to announce his resignation: a rebellion among members sent to Washington by voters who believe the party has compromised far too often with President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
The challenge now facing Republicans is not only looking for leaders to unite the party’s warring factions, but also determining whether finding them is even possible.
For all the talk about ideology, the split among Republicans is often more about tactics. Boehner and McCarthy are both staunchly conservative lawmakers, but members elected in the tea party era openly question whether they can be trusted to hold the line in budget negotiations and on other matters.
In the House, some Republicans are begging Rep. Paul Ryan to step into the void. Ryan is no more conservative than Boehner — like the outgoing speaker, he has called for immigration reform — but he is widely respected in the party and seen as one of its intellectual leaders.
While Ryan has said he is not interested in the job, fellow lawmakers said Friday that he was weighing a bid to replace Boehner.
Numerous House Republicans and even 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney have asked Ryan to run for the spot. But with Congress embarking on a weeklong recess, there was no sign of any move from Ryan, who was Romney’s vice presidential running mate, or of any other development that could bring order to the Republican Party’s disarray in the lower chamber of Congress.
“Although he’s ruled himself out, it’s very clear he’s reconsidering,” Rep. Darrell Issa of California said of Ryan as he left a closed-door meeting of House Republicans. “The fact is, his time is now.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney called Ryan to ask him to run for speaker, a source familiar with the situation said.
“I wouldn’t presume to tell Paul what to do, but I do know that he is a man of ideas who is driven to see them applied for the public good. Every politician tries to convince people that they are that kind of leader; almost none are — Paul is,” Romney said in an emailed comment.
Yet it is telling that Ryan, a budget expert and the Republicans’ vice presidential pick in 2012, has so far said he doesn’t want the job. He has left the clear impression that ascending to speaker in the current political environment would be more detrimental than helpful to his political future, which includes White House ambitions.
Indeed, the next speaker will face a quick test to corral lawmakers who equate compromise with surrender. Congress must lift the nation’s debt limit by early November in order to avoid a default and faces a Dec. 11 deadline to pass a budget and keep the government open.
A protracted fight over either issue would spill into the presidential primary elections, forcing candidates to pick sides between the House’s small but vocal “hell no” caucus and leaders who warn that the party would take the blame for a default or a federal shutdown.
The risk for the party establishment is that those fights could harden support for presidential candidates running as political outsiders, namely Trump as well as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former technology executive Carly Fiorina. Predictions that Trump, and now Carson and Fiorina, would fade in polls have so far proved unfounded, yet few Republican strategists believe any of the three could win the general election.
If former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio or another experienced politician does become the Republican nominee, it is unclear whether the hardliners would fall in line or simply abandon the party on Election Day in November 1916 by not showing up or backing a third-party contender.