It was strangely appropriate that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s withdrawal from the race for speaker, the latest front in the war between conservative insurgents and the Republican establishment, came the same day as a “Thursday Night Football” loss by the Houston Texans.
For the rivalry between Texans quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, both vying for leadership of the same troubled squad, is in some ways reminiscent of the more consequential competition between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party.
The New England Patriots drafted Mallett in 2011. Some scouts considered him a potential NFL starter right out of college, but he fell in the draft due to somewhat hazy character concerns. Hoyer, a 2009 undrafted rookie free agent, was already the Patriots backup quarterback (the starting position was obviously taken).
Brian and Ryan have been competing almost ever since. Hoyer won the first year and was number two quarterback while Mallett was relegated to third string. Mallett won the second year and Hoyer was cut. Hoyer got to be a starting quarterback first. Mallett played against Hoyer’s team during his own first career start and won. Hoyer beat Mallett for the starter’s job in Houston this summer. Mallett replaced an ineffective Hoyer in the first game; Hoyer looks like he may be sending a struggling Mallett to the bench now.
So it has been with movement conservatives and the Republican establishment. Conservatives staged a takeover of the party at the 1964 convention with the nomination of Barry Goldwater. While the Goldwaterites failed to nominate one of their own a second time in 1968, but their gains seemed durable. Instead the Richard Nixon years delivered what old Nixon hand Pat Buchanan described in the title of his first book: Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories.
Ronald Reagan won both the nomination and the presidency in 1980. He also changed the Republican Party forever. But George Bush’s easy defeat of Jack Kemp in 1988 reminded conservatives not to overestimate that change. His violation of the tax pledge drove the point home.
Establishment Republicans have won the party’s presidential nomination ever since. The peak may have been when George W. Bush married establishment and Christian right support to prevent the emergence of a viable conservative alternative in 2000. Against John McCain that year, the man who would give us No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D was the conservative alternative. Conservatives clamored to campaign with the younger President Bush in 2004.
A similar trajectory played out at the congressional level. The decent, well-meaning, but go-along-to-get along Republicanism of Bob Michel was replaced in the GOP leadership by the “Republican Revolution” of rabblerousing Newt Gingrich. Gingrich had fought the 1990 Bush tax hike and helped lead the GOP to victory during the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term in 1994.
Depending on your perspective, the Republican revolution either devoured its own or Gingrich lost his nerve after losing the government shutdown fights of the mid-1990s. The Republican Congress began outspending Clinton even before Gingrich left town. Even with stalwarts like Dick Armey and Tom DeLay still firmly ensconced in the leadership team, big-government conservatism and deal-making Republicanism regained their influence and subsequent House speakers seemed increasingly Michel-like.
Conservatives had periodic success defeating moderate Republicans in primaries when they were to the left of the party across the board. But the Tea Party wave of 2010 made it look like this would be a regular feature, even when the incumbent only ran afoul of the conservative faithful on certain paramount issues, like the TARP bailout.
Four years later, however, the party establishment enjoyed great success protecting its incumbents against Tea Party challengers: Orrin Hatch versus Dan Liljenquist, Mitch McConnell versus Matt Bevin, and, most contentious of all, Thad Cochran versus Chris McDaniel.
But there was a significant exception: Dave Brat’s wildly unexpected primary upset over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Since then, conservatives in the House have helped topple one speaker and prevent the election of another.
Just one important thing is missing. The Tea Party has the scalps of Cantor, John Boehner, and McCarthy. It wants the scalps of Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, and decades of liberal Democratic policies.
Like Hoyer, who capped a masterful Thursday night performance with a badly thrown game-losing interception, and Mallett, both Republican factions are competing to lead what still looks like a losing team.