House speaker crisis is a symptom of historic Republican divisions

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You might have thought it was a Democrat who recently said that House Republicans were in the “same stupid clown car with a different driver.” And while I’m sure many Democrats feel that way, it was Republican Rep. Dusty Johnson who uttered that memorable phrase.

The South Dakota congressman was referring to the current House mess after eight Republicans voted (with Democrats) to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker.

But whether or not the House Republican majority elects a new speaker anytime soon is irrelevant. What we’re seeing now is something we haven’t seen in modern times.

This episode is symptomatic of a historic Republican divide in the House: It’s not just over ideology but also over trust in their leaders to compromise in a way that makes the party happy.

Much of the recent discussion over House Republican divisions tries to frame it along the right-left ideological spectrum. Those who voted against McCarthy are more conservative, on average, than the GOP at large – and this is a very conservative House majority. But there are plenty of Republicans who are quite conservative and didn’t vote McCarthy out (think Texas Rep. Chip Roy, for example).

What’s also going on is a split over whether Republicans should try to govern by way of compromise. Are people willing to line up behind the compromises House GOP leaders have made with Democrats to keep the government going?

Analyzing roll call votes in Congress can offer some answers. Not surprisingly, the Republican representative who has been the least friendly to party leadership this Congress is Florida’s Matt Gaetz, according to a metric produced by the academics at Voteview.

More importantly, the difference on this score between those House Republicans most open to compromise and friendly to party leadership and those most opposed (i.e., the top fifth and bottom fifth percentiles) is wider than it has been in the past 80 years. These lawmakers on the edges of the conference are so important because of how narrow the current GOP majority is – all it takes is a few members to topple the speaker, as we saw earlier this month.

Representatives like Gaetz didn’t pop out of nowhere. They are in the Congress because people elected them.

Specifically, many of the same people who really like former President Donald Trump.

Take a look at a question asked in our latest CNN/SSRS survey published on Thursday. We asked whether Republicans in Congress should “stand firm on beliefs without compromise, even if not much gets done in Washington, or work across the aisle to get things done in Washington, even if it means losing out on some high-priority policies?”

A majority of voters who are behind Trump in the 2024 GOP primary contest (52%) wanted Republicans in Congress to stand firm. Among Republicans not behind Trump, just 23% preferred lawmakers who didn’t compromise. Most (77%) yearned for congressional Republicans who worked across the aisle.

Of course, most Republicans (58%) are backing Trump in the primary, the CNN poll found. Part of Trump’s appeal is that he isn’t a conventional Republican who does business as usual.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that a majority of Trump supporters (56%) approve of McCarthy being removed as speaker after he made a deal with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown.

Among all other Republicans, only 37% approved of McCarthy’s ousting.

I should note that among Republican voters, the idea of compromising to avert a government shutdown isn’t terribly different than it was a decade ago. What does seem to have changed, to some degree, is the people in Congress.

GOP lawmakers who were seen as anti-establishment a decade ago – like Kentucky’s Thomas Massie, who voted to retain McCarthy as speaker – are apparently not anti-establishment enough these days.

Folks like Massie have been pushed aside for folks like Gaetz. For at least some Republicans in Congress, this now is the party of Trump.

Another key difference is that the current size of the House GOP majority is more reminiscent of the late 1990s and early 2000s than the tea party era of a decade ago.

Some 25 years ago, NBC polling found that Republicans were far more open to compromise than they were to standing on principle. When it came to negotiations with Democratic President Bill Clinton, 63% of Republicans wanted compromise and only 28% wanted to stand on principles when forced to pick between the two choices.

Today, Republicans again have a slim majority in the House – but with a party electorate willing to tolerate a lot in the name of principle. It’s no surprise then that we’re dealing with a House GOP leadership fight that seems more fitting of an Aaron Sorkin script than the real world.

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