Less than a year ago, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and his fellow House Republicans were triumphant. In November 2014, they elected more conservatives to Congress than any time since the 1920s. In the same election, the GOP won the Senate, giving the party control of both houses for the first time since 2006.
"We'll turn this country around," McCarthy pledged. "The president has to listen to what the American people have said."
Those ambitions have been reduced to ashes. A long-running revolt by insurgent conservatives has boiled over, first prompting House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to retire, then pushing McCarthy, the second-ranking Republican, to abandon his candidacy for the job.
The House GOP still has its majority — but no speaker, no cohesion and no strategy for turning its conservative agenda into law. "A banana republic," said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).
And nobody seems to want the speaker's job, even though it's technically the third-highest position in the U.S. government. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), one of the wittier insurgents, said he didn't think he was qualified: "I don't have a background in mental health," he told the Washington Post.
The irony is that McCarthy and Boehner helped many of the rebels get elected. McCarthy was one of the three leaders of the GOP's "Young Guns" program, which recruited up-and-coming conservatives for House elections in 2010 and after. Another was Eric Cantor (R-Va.), a Boehner deputy who lost his seat when an insurgent defeated him in the Republican primary. The third, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), is now almost every Republican's favorite candidate for speaker — but on Friday he said he wasn't interested.
Boehner wasn't part of the new wave; he was an old-line conservative who believed in blocking the agenda of a Democratic president, but also accepted the need to compromise to keep the federal government running. And that enraged many of the insurgents, who had promised voters they wouldn't agree to half-measures. They believe they were sent to Washington to obstruct compromises, not support them.
Their intransigence produced a series of fruitless crises.
In 2011, they demanded that Boehner refuse to allow a rise in the federal debt ceiling if Obama and the Democratic-led Senate didn't agree to all the spending cuts they wanted. The gambit failed. In 2013, they shut the federal government for 16 days in an attempt to force the repeal of Obama's health insurance program; that gambit failed too.
After his decision to retire, Boehner denounced the GOP radicals as "false prophets" who misled their own voters. They "whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know — they know! — are never going to happen," he said last week.
But don't feel too bad for him: Boehner stood by while that whipping took place.
"Now he's saying the House has been hijacked by radicals, but the pilots of this airline gave the hijackers first-class seats," Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a longtime Congress-watcher, told me. "They encouraged them, incited them, promised them things. And now the hijackers want what they were promised."
As radical as the insurgents are, it would be wrong to dismiss them as a fringe group. Even as they antagonized Boehner, they built a national constituency that may be a majority among grass-roots Republicans. A Fox News poll last month reported that 62% of GOP primary voters believe they have been "betrayed" by the party's leaders; 66% believe leaders have failed to do everything possible to block Obama's agenda.
The GOP's insurgent impulse, in other words, isn't merely a result of gerrymandering or conservative microclimates in rural America. It's a product of the same widespread anger that has made Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina potential presidential nominees.
Back in the House of Representatives, the insurgents were not happy with McCarthy. They knew he was a Boehner conservative at heart — a compromiser.
After the GOP's 2014 election victory, McCarthy said he'd try to avoid fiscal crises to show the country that Republicans were ready to govern, paving the way for a Republican presidential candidate to win in 2016.
Last week, the insurgents — who have organized themselves as the Freedom Caucus, with about 40 members — auditioned McCarthy and others for speaker. As the price for their support, they demanded written promises from McCarthy: a Freedom Caucus member as his deputy, more limits on the speaker's power to appoint committee chairmen, no punishment for members who buck party discipline. McCarthy would have been crazy to say yes.
The sensible thing at this point might be for the Republican conference to split. After all, it's already operating as an unstable coalition of two mini-parties: the Freedom Caucus and what you might call the Governing Caucus. In a parliamentary system, the Freedom Caucus could force the government to call new elections. Alternatively, the GOP's Governing Caucus could form a coalition with moderate Democrats.
That won't happen in our system. Republicans will keep their majority — but it still won't be a usable, workable majority. They'll have the satisfaction of telling their constituents that they refused to compromise. But they still won't get anything done.