Paul Ryan is no closer to becoming House speaker. In fact, no one is any closer to becoming House speaker. And the press has now declared this an existential crisis.
It’s not just a messy leadership fight. It’s a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party.
After two Beltway bombshells—John Boehner abruptly stepping down, and Kevin McCarthy even more abruptly bowing out of the race to succeed him—the GOP is being described as a party in chaos. And it’s certainly true that the House majority, torn between its mainstream and hard-line factions, seems paralyzed right now.
Few seem as upset as David Brooks. The New York Times columnist is a moderate conservative, an erudite author, consistently civil, an unmistakable member of the GOP establishment. President Obama has granted occasional audiences. He’s the kind of conservative who believes in getting things done.
And so the alarming tone of Brooks’ column the other day, in which he declared the House caucus “close to ungovernable,” is like a primal scream from a guy who usually speaks softly.
The old, cautious conservatism that respected institutions “has been overturned in dangerous parts of the Republican Party,” says Brooks. “Over the past 30 years, or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene, the Republican rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced. Public figures are prisoners of their own prose styles, and Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality. Civilization was always on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic. Comparisons to Nazi Germany became a staple.
“This produced a radical mind-set… A contempt for politics infested the Republican mind.”
Wait, there’s more.
“Welcome to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus. Really, have we ever seen bumbling on this scale, people at once so cynical and so naïve, so willfully ignorant in using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good? These insurgents can’t even acknowledge democracy’s legitimacy — if you can’t persuade a majority of your colleagues, maybe you should accept their position. You might be wrong!”
I don’t know that Rush, or Newt, or Carson is to blame. Yes, the hardest of hard-line conservatives have pushed things to the point of government shutdowns, and many consider compromise a dirty word. But they are also representing their constituents. They can also make the case that the GOP establishment’s approach hasn’t produced much, especially with President Obama acting unilaterally on several issues.
As for fomenting a crisis mentality, well, the left has been known to do that too. And how can any of this be blamed on Trump, who's been in politics for three months?
Still, the frustration that has Brooks rending his garments is also shared by liberal pundits, with the battle over Ryan being something of a turning point.
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus unloads on “bomb-throwing purists, at least among enough of the majority to prevent Republicans from functioning.
“The ultimate manifestation of this craziness isn't the departure of Speaker John Boehner or the pre-emptive dethroning of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. It's the jaw-dropping notion that Paul Ryan is insufficiently conservative to be entrusted with the speakership.” She winds up with a slap at “the crayoned scrawl of tantruming preschoolers unable to have it entirely their way.”
A Times news story captures the Wisconsin congressman’s reluctance:
“Mr. Ryan’s personal dedication to fiscal issues could mean he might prefer to remain in the powerful, more policy-oriented post of chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, rather than agree to take the speaker’s gavel and try to corral the stampeding hard-right conservatives who chased out Speaker John A. Boehner.”
National Review, meanwhile, says Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin are speaking out against a Ryan promotion:
“The man who was once the party’s fresh-faced vice-presidential nominee, lauded for his aggressive calls to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid and portrayed by Democrats as the arch-conservative villain who would toss Granny off a cliff, now finds himself the latest target of some of conservative media’s biggest stars.”
And the rhetoric is heating up: Red State’s Erick Erickson, ticking off Ryan’s record on such issues as immigration, taxes and the bank bailout, says he’s not a bad person:
“But his cult of personality will make it problematic for conservatives should he be Speaker because everyone calls Rep. Paul Ryan a conservative and you are a loon if you think otherwise. In other words, House conservatives who might take issue with Ryan in the future will immediately be labeled as fascist totalitarians more willing to set everything on fire than work hard.
“Personally, given Washington these days, I think the default should be to burn it to the ground (metaphorically speaking), but you know what I mean. Rep. Paul Ryan will give the veneer of conservatism to whatever he touches.”
Burn it to the ground. No wonder Ryan doesn’t want the job. And whether he gets it really could determine the party’s future.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.