Kevin McCarthy (rumors of infidelity notwithstanding) stepped aside for the same reasons John Boehner did. No “establishment” candidate was going to get to 218 votes on the floor of the House to elect the next Speaker. Conservatives, led by (but encompassing more than) the House Freedom Caucus, made plain that they would force a leadership crisis when the vote came before the full body.
That’s a nightmare scenario for any leader, with far reaching consequences for the ongoing order of the House. No one really wanted that kind of scenario where the sitting Speaker had no governing majority, and would be forced to mortgage his legitimacy to whatever number of Democrat votes would be necessary to gain the gavel.
So, the siege laid by the minority worked to force a change. But, even though there were many inside the castle who quietly supported the siege, the siege troops are still nowhere numerous enough to govern the castle by themselves. More moderate (or at least less strident) Republicans still constitute a large majority of the Republican Conference, and could use the same tactics deployed against McCarthy and Boehner to thwart any leadership from outside their mainstream.
Thus, the crisis is not averted. The key to avoiding it is finding a win for both sides.
Enter Paul Ryan, the young Wisconsin Representative who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. Ryan is chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for two reasons. First, he’s brilliant, and outshines nearly all his colleagues when it comes to his willingness and ability to dive very deeply into policy details, including especially the arcane minutiae of the budget. The second reason is probably more important: Ryan has demonstrated a willingness to play ball with Boehner’s leadership team, and to back them on all the hard votes.
Although he is therefore to be considered part of the “establishment,” he’s still not among their leadership team, and prior to his elevation to his current perch atop the body’s most powerful committee he had demonstrated a thoroughly conservative willingness to buck leadership and chart his own course (all carefully researched and footnoted, of course).
This is why many people talk about Paul Ryan as the one guy who can form a bridge between the two main factions.
A Fox News interview last evening with Virginia’s Rep. Dave Brat shed some light on this. Brat, in responding to questions from Greta Van Susteren, confirmed he was supporting Dan Webster for Speaker. But, the interesting part came when he heaped praise on Paul Ryan. (Yes, this is the same Paul Ryan who co-authored the “Young Guns” book with Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy back in 2010).
Brat extolled Ryan’s intelligence and willingness to hear all sides, and the respect that he has from around the Conference. Brat said,
The last thing thing Paul Ryan wants is the leadership and the establishment begging him. He’s got very good credentials. He’s right on the budget, Ways and Means. He’s a smart guy when it comes to all the facts. The last thing he needs is an endorsement from the establishment….He’s got his head on straight and a lot of friends up here. If the American people are on board with him, that’s the best credential he can have.
(Emphasis added). Brat declined to endorse Ryan, but said if he were to get on board with some conservative process reforms, “a lot of people will give [Ryan] a real good look.”
What we see here is a path away from crisis, and that means picking a leader from “inside the castle” that everyone feels they can deal with. Conservatives will have scored a monumental victory against the status quo, and against a leadership team that hasn’t taken full account of their concerns and views, and in securing substantial organizational and procedural improvements in the way the House does business. The “establishment” will score a victory, of sorts, by retaining one of their own in leadership, and ensuring the next Speaker is someone who won’t embarrass them or the Party.
Clearly this is a fluid situation, and Paul Ryan still maintains he does not want the job. But at the moment, a Speaker Paul Ryan seems to be the most likely outcome.