Republicans didn’t have a speaker for 40 years until Newt Gingrich finally brought the gavel back to the party in 1995 after decades in the wilderness. But holding on to it has proven extremely challenging for Republicans in the years since — a potential lesson for future Speaker Mike Johnson.
From Newt Gingrich to John A. Boehner to Kevin McCarthy and points in between, Republican speakers and speaker candidates have encountered significant turbulence from their colleagues. The result was internal rebellion of the kind that led to Mr. Johnson’s ascension from almost nowhere to the highest office in Congress on Wednesday.
Some Republicans worry that history will repeat itself with a similar result if Mr Johnson clashes with a rank-and-file element, an outcome they would like to avoid at all costs given the terrible chaos of recent weeks. Republicans have shown a clear tendency to oust the person at the top when it becomes expedient, much more so than Democrats, and lawmakers hope the habit hasn’t become too ingrained.
“We have a history of moving speakers now, which I think is a cultural challenge that needs to be addressed,” said Representative Mike Garcia, R-Calif.
All of this added to the sense that Republican oratory might be cursed. And this led to a kind of vicious circle in which the party, against the wall with seemingly no other option, repeatedly elected speakers who could not stand the job.
Mr. Gingrich, the mastermind behind the 1994 Republican revolution, was the first to leave despite his central role in freeing his party from near-permanent minority status.
Like others to come, he fell victim to the expectations game – which he himself fueled by predicting that a Republican effort to impeach President Bill Clinton in the fall of 1998 would lead to winning a seat in the House of Representatives that November. Instead, his party lost a handful. The backlash was immediate for Republicans, who were exhausted by the political maelstrom that has continually engulfed Mr. Gingrich.
Representative Bob Livingston, Republican of Louisiana, who was then the popular chairman of the Appropriations Committee, informed Mr. Gingrich that he intended to challenge him for the post. Mr. Gingrich decided not to run and lost when he realized he had no support. But then Mr Livingston exploded and handed the hammer before he ever got it, after allegations of infidelity emerged and he backed down. The GOP speaker was on.
Republicans quickly turned to J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, pulling him out of relative obscurity in the same way that Mr. Johnson experienced this week. Mr. Hastert served until Democrats took back the House in 2007, making him the longest-serving Republican speaker. He was later convicted and sentenced to prison for paying to cover up sexual abuse from his time as a wrestling coach, years before he reached Congress.
After Mr. Hastert came John A. Boehner, himself a former House thug who joined the leadership during the Republican takeover only to be ousted along with Mr. Gingrich in 1998. He made a surprise comeback in 2007, then became speaker when Republicans won the House in 2010. He lasted until 2015, when he abruptly resigned rather than submit to the same far-right “quit demand” that this month ousted Mr. . McCarthy from the throne.
Mr. McCarthy himself tried to succeed Mr. Boehner in 2015, but realized he couldn’t round up the votes (sound familiar?). So Republicans turned to Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a highly respected politician who didn’t want the job but was finally coaxed into the job. After repeatedly butting heads with President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Ryan, who was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, decided to retire from Congress in 2018, even though he was only 48 years old.
Mr McCarthy was then next in line to become speaker when Republicans took back the House last year, becoming the latest to lose his job. But the unrest has damaged not only him, but also two other top members of the Republican leadership, Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Tom Emmer of Minnesota. Both failed to garner enough support for their speakership candidates, though they held on to their positions as majority leaders and party whips. Clearly, Republican leadership is not for the faint of heart.
Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who repeatedly voted against Mr. McCarthy before he was elected president in January, suggested the pattern reflects a more business-like attitude toward speaking among Republicans than Democrats.
“You see, in the private sector, if you don’t do the job, you get fired,” he said.
From a Democratic perspective, Representative Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and longtime member of the party leadership, said Republican speakers are ultimately being consumed by the same forces of discontent the party uses to galvanize its voters.
“We saw a party that was deeply divided,” Mr. Hoyer said. “They rejected three leaders in a row. They are divisive. They aim to divide America and get the most hardened, angry and disaffected to vote for them.”
Another reason why Republicans have been somewhat ruthless when it comes to speakers is that they are struggling to consolidate the full support of their membership. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the longtime Democratic president, faced occasional grumbling about her tight-fisted rule, but a real threat never materialized, and she was re-elected president in 2019 and again in 2021 even after losing her majority in 2010.
Mr. Boehner, on the other hand, has often clashed with the most conservative House Republicans, whom he has labeled “knuckleheads.” Mr. Ryan clashed with pro-Trump forces in the party. And Mr. McCarthy was ousted by the far right despite his intense efforts to keep them on his side by giving in to their frequent demands.
Eric Cantor, who as a Republican House member from Virginia served as majority leader under Mr. Boehner, said another factor in the recent GOP speaker turnover was the political landscape outside the House.
Mr. Hastert served mostly under Republican President George W. Bush as the nation grappled with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their aftermath, a time when Americans were searching for stability.
Mr. Boehner and Mr. The McCarthys, on the other hand, served alongside Democratic presidents and were sidelined by the unrealistic expectations of Republican colleagues who were angered when they were unable to deliver on GOP priorities or ended up compromising with the opposing party.
“There was an expectation that we were going to repeal Obamacare when President Obama was in the White House and Harry Reid and the Democrats controlled the Senate,” Cantor said. “People get angry when you tell them the truth.”
The current reality for Mr. Johnson is that he is in a similar position. The test will be how his party responds if he is forced into a compromise that the far right finds unacceptable.