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Boehner to Ryan to McCarthy to — Jordan?

It is unclear if Jordan can be both an ideologue and an institutionalist

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, right, stands with outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner before Ryan was sworn in on the House floor as the 54th speaker on Oct. 29, 2015.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan, right, stands with outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner before Ryan was sworn in on the House floor as the 54th speaker on Oct. 29, 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The GOP’s difficulty in electing a speaker of the House of Representatives once again reveals the deep divide between institutionalists and ideologues. 

Former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton once defined an institutionalist as “a member who puts the institution of Congress first. Who welcomes responsibility for making it work; who pushes his or her colleagues to fulfill their constitutional obligations; who respects the role and history of Congress in forging this country’s history.”

Ideologues, in contrast, are all about opinions and outcomes, not process or institutions.

The last three Republican speakers — John A. Boehner, Paul D. Ryan and Kevin McCarthy — are different from the most recent GOP “nominee” for speaker, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. The differences are not about ideology, but about how the institution performs.

Boehner, after all, was an ideological bomb thrower when he first came to Congress. But he ultimately came to understand that politics is about compromise. He recognized that the party that’s up now will likely be down within a few years.

As for Ryan, I remember my first candidate meeting with him. He was then a young staffer running for Congress in 1998. Although the district was competitive, Ryan started that race as an underdog against Democrat Lydia Spottswood, who had narrowly lost to Republican Rep. Mark Neumann in 1996. 

I asked Ryan all the usual questions about his education, career to date, views on issues, campaign organization and fundraising. After the interview, Ryan asked me something that few others ever did. He wanted to know how he did. It was as if I was his professor and he wanted to know what grade he got on his oral exam.

I told him he did great. He showed he could talk about policy and ideas, as well as about campaigns and politics. He was obviously smart and articulate. He had a terrific future. But he was very young, had to prove his fundraising ability and had an experienced opponent. 

He’d probably lose his race, I suggested, but he’d likely get a good job, which would strengthen his credentials and prepare him for another race. I told him that I expected him to make it to Congress at some point. 

I recall him looking disappointed, even after what I thought was a glowing review. (I was a hard grader. Just ask any of my former Bucknell students.)

But within a few months I started to hear more and more good things about his candidacy, and by the time the election rolled around, Spottswood had lost her advantage and Ryan was pulling ahead. He ended up winning, en route to a career that would land him a spot as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012 and eventually the speakership.

Boehner and Ryan each tried to “lead” majorities in a party that was increasingly divided, fractured over strategy and tactics. 

Tea party types saw every compromise as a defeat for the GOP, even if Republicans got something out of the deal. If only the leadership had pushed Democrats (or sometimes Republican senators) for more compromise, they insisted, the House GOP could have gotten more of what it wanted.

Boehner and Ryan did the best they could, but the increasingly loud and angry tea party members of Congress, and then later the House Freedom Caucus, viewed compromise as little more than defeat.

McCarthy faced the same problem — except that the small GOP majority and the thinning of the ranks of institutionalists made things worse. From day one, he always seemed to be looking back at his members to see how many of them were following him.

Ideology mattered less to McCarthy than to Boehner or Ryan. At least they had principles. His only goal seemed to be election as speaker.

Jordan, of course, is a pure ideologue. Ironically, his predecessor in the House was Mike Oxley, a friendly, truly likable and utterly reasonable conservative (and former FBI agent) who rose to chair the House Committee on Financial Services. Along with Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes, Oxley co-authored the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.

One of the key founders of the House Freedom Caucus — along with the likes of Ron DeSantis (Florida), Mark Meadows (North Carolina), Mick Mulvaney (South Carolina), and Raúl Labrador (Idaho) — Jordan and his colleagues wanted more confrontation, not more compromise.

Now, the House seems to be run by Jordan, Matt Gaetz (Florida), Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia), Andy Biggs (Arizona) and a handful of other Freedom Caucus types who are more interested in cutting spending and shrinking government than in addressing any other issues.

As the Congress has become more ideological, it has also become more interested in outcomes than in process, in ideological results than in building strong institutions that will keep the country united. 

It certainly is possible to be a conservative and an institutionalist at the same time. Boehner and Ryan demonstrated that. But most of the Republican institutionalists, people like Fred Upton of Michigan and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, are long gone. And that’s not great news for the country.

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