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GOP radicals set the House leadership adrift

GOP radicals set the House leadership adrift
(David Horsey/LA Times)

Kevin McCarthy has decided he does not want the thankless task of babysitting a bunch of grown men who have less good sense than a gang of 13-year-old boys left alone in a liquor store. So he shocked his Republican colleagues and the entire political world on Thursday by turning down the chance to be speaker of the House mere minutes before he was to be chosen for the job.

The representative from Bakersfield, Calif., told reporters it appeared he would not get the support of the 40-or-so militant members of the so-called "Freedom Caucus" and, thus, he was stepping aside to make room for another candidate who could unite the House Republican Conference.

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Unfortunately for Republicans, there is no obvious person who can be that unifying candidate except for Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and Mr. Ryan is vigorously resisting pressure for him to take the job. Mr. Ryan, the last GOP candidate for vice-president, is perfectly happy in his role as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and probably even happier with the constant buzz about him being a future presidential nominee. Short of being caught in a sleazy motel with a live boy or a dead girl (as the old political bromide goes), nothing could be more damaging to his White House aspirations than being speaker at this point in his party's history.

The current speaker, John Boehner, is planning to turn in his gavel because the militants consider him too much of a compromiser. The next speaker will quite likely be a short-timer because, inevitably in a divided government, deals have to be made to get anything done. Mr. Ryan has spent his entire adult life working on Capitol Hill. He is solidly conservative, but he wants to accomplish something. As a smart veteran of the legislative process, he knows that does not happen by shutting down the government in a hissy fit every six months.

The Freedom Caucus folks do not know that. The fact that the president is a Democrat with veto power and that the Democratic minority in the Senate can block any legislation they dislike does not, to them, suggest a need for finding common ground. They want confrontation and expect capitulation. Mr. Boehner told them that was impossible, so they pushed him out (or thought they did). Mr. McCarthy could not convince them he would be any better, so he backed away. Mr. Ryan knows he would be unable to fulfill their unrealistic expectations, so why would he risk his political career by trying?

Members of the Freedom Caucus -- could that name be any more presumptuous or arrogant? -- almost all hail from districts that have been gerrymandered to guarantee they will never fear defeat by a Democrat. Their only challenge could come from another Republican who is even more radical and right wing than they are. As a consequence, they are desperate to deliver for their ultra-conservative constituents. These are voters with an ambitious agenda. They want Planned Parenthood destroyed, Obamacare repealed, undocumented immigrants sent back to where they came from, gay marriage revoked and abortions outlawed. Plus, they'd be really pleased to see the president impeached because they are convinced he's a Muslim socialist who is planning to seize their guns and cancel the 2016 election.

These voters are demanding immediate action on all their concerns. They think Mr. Boehner and the other Republican Party leaders have sold them out, time after time, and thousands of them sent messages to their congressmen saying they did not want McCarthy as speaker because they suspected he would be just another fake conservative like Mr. Boehner. Several members of the Freedom Caucus very openly acknowledged they would be in trouble with their constituents if they enabled Mr. McCarthy's rise to be second in line to the presidency, so they refused to vote for him.

However, now that they have scared off Mr. McCarthy and pleased the folks back home, the House Republican rebels are left with the same knotty problem. Achieving the fever dreams of their constituents is impossible -- and not just because Democrats stand in the way. The majority of Americans also stand in their way because, when it comes down to it, the Freedom Caucus represents only a petulant minority that grows smaller every year.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

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