House Republicans need history lesson in battle over next leader

House Republicans need history lesson in battle over next leader
© Greg Nash

After losing their majority in the 2018 midterms, House Republicans are once again selecting a new leader with a battle between Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyWill Congress provide relief to the ailing childcare sector? Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel 4 Texas GOP congressional primary runoffs to watch MORE and Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Nadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' MORE. This will be the Republicans fourth leader in the last 12 years, a period of time when the Democrats have had only one, with presumed Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi signals flexibility on size of renewed unemployment payments Car on fire near Supreme Court Watch live: Pelosi speaks on coronavirus funding MORE. But the pattern for Republican instability goes back further. History has shown that the Republicans are quick with the hook and do not follow traditional lines of succession.

The majority leader has an almost guaranteed succession to become speaker. For 16 straight speaker changes, this pattern held. But the tradition shook when Newt Gingrich, who was credited with leading the Republicans out of the political wilderness for the first time in 40 years in 1994, started losing the support of his members, leading to a failed coup. A relatively poor performance in the 1998 midterms led to his resignation.


In a break with the pattern, Majority Leader Dick Armey was skipped by the Republicans, who looked to Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Livingston to serve as speaker. Thanks to a sex scandal, the presumptive leadership succession did not last to the swearing in. The Republicans then went much further down the leadership ladder, selecting Deputy Majority Whip Dennis HastertJohn (Dennis) Dennis HastertFeehery: It's about the Trump voter Feehery: On statues and statutes Feehery: The more radicals try to remove history, the more the president looks to repeat it MORE, who managed to remain speaker for eight years until the Republicans lost their majority.

Hastert was succeed by Majority Leader John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE, leader of the failed Gingrich coup, who himself managed to jump the line back into power by defeating Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntHillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Advocacy groups pressure Senate to reconvene and boost election funding GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle MORE, the acting majority leader and then majority whip following the resignation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE rose to speaker after the Republicans gained control in the 2010 elections, but he too met an inglorious end, as Republican backbenchers, including Jordan, help lead him to quit as speaker in 2015, even though the party had recently scored significant wins. Once again, the Republicans chose to ignore the promotional path and skipped making Majority Leader McCarthy the speaker. Instead, they looked to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman and former vice presidential nominee Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE.

The willingness of the Republicans to fire their leaders goes back even before the recent run in the majority. The last Republican speaker before Gingrich was Joseph Martin, who was later was kicked out of the role of minority leader by Charles Halleck, who was then ousted by Gerald Ford. After Ford was named vice president, his successor John Rhodes did not run for reelection following threats from other members. Robert Michel, the successor to Rhodes, bowed out right before the Republicans scored the majority when Gingrich made it clear that he would run against Michel for speaker. It has been assumed that the Republicans followed this pattern due to their inability to recapture the majority, but it has clearly continued even when the Republicans had the upper hand in the House.

The Democrats have a completely different history. Under Pelosi, the party has lost numerous elections, along with the majority back in 2010, but she has not faced a serious threat to her control. Similarly, her predecessor Dick Gephardt only left the leadership to run for president. Every speaker from the party served as majority or minority leader before taking the gavel, and only one was clearly pushed out. That was Jim Wright, who resigned due to scandal. Even when the Democrats lost the House as far back as 1918, the speaker or majority leader became the minority leader.

Reports suggest that McCarthy has the edge in his race for minority leader, a position that is a bit easier to get than speaker, simply because you only need a majority of party membership, not a majority of the entire House. However, the Republican record suggests that McCarthy should be wary of Jordan and any other contender who may try to challenge him. Moreover, he should be very worried about future attempts to dethrone him. The Republicans have been very willing to get rid of its leaders.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow with the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in Staten Island in New York.