I said before that when things go wonky, political science learns. And nothing’s been wonkier lately than the House Republicans' hunt for leadership.
Today, Paul Ryan has agreed to seek the job of speaker, but only if certain conditions are met.
If you’ve been paying attention to what people say about polarization in Congress, the House Republicans’ difficulty in finding a leader should be a bit puzzling to you. If Republicans are all conservatives now, they should just elect a conservative leader and go with it.
That's the strategy Democrats used in the 1970s, when the Watergate scandal sent a cohort of more liberal Democrats to the House, making its caucus more homogeneous. The moderates were booted out, and the Watergate babies also demanded reforms. These reforms actually empowered the speaker, along with subcommittee chairs, in relation to the committee chairs, who were generally the conservative Democrats blocking the policy changes that liberal Democrats wanted. So the new Democrats wanted more power for themselves, just like the House Freedom Caucus does, but they also wanted to give more power to the leadership.
That dynamic led political scientists John Aldrich and David Rohde to describe a theory of conditional party government. Parties, like any collective group, struggle to commit to collective decisions. When leaders are given more power, they can use that power to help the collective group. Aldrich and Rohde argue that parties will grant their leadership power, but only when the party is relatively more homogeneous. If the party is divided, it won’t be able to agree on a direction, so it won’t want a strong leader to be able to force it in one.
That explains the Democrats’ ideological moment. But aren’t the Republicans even more homogeneous now? Moderates have been evicted from the party, right? Shouldn’t the homogeneous conservatives be happy to cede some power to the speaker?
Obviously not. It’s definitely true that the party is more ideologically homogenous now than it once was. Conservative activists, who once found a home in both parties, are now solely interested in influencing the Republicans. But even if conservatism is the core of the Republican coalition, the party is still a coalition. Some observers have started to say that the Republican Party has been taken over by ideological purists, but the speaker dilemma proves that’s not exactly true. Part of the party is ideological purists, but a big part of the party is not. The difference between the House Freedom Caucus and the rest of the party is not as huge on policy as it is on strategy.
In other words, most of the party is conservative, but it is not remotely homogeneous when it comes to strategy. So the logic of coalition politics still applies.
This is a big lesson for political science. We typically measure homogeneity ideologically. If the policies that John Boehner and Paul Ryan (and their constituencies) want are pretty similar to the policies the House Freedom Caucus wants — and while there are important differences, they mostly are — then we think the party is homogeneous. But disagreements about strategy may be even more important. So the "conditional" part of party government isn't satisfied.
But who wants to be the leader when the followers can’t commit to a direction? This is why the party had such a hard time finding someone to replace Boehner. And it’s why Ryan is asking for what he is asking for. He wants to be sure all the main factions of the party support him. He wants to make sure he will have leverage over the factions that might want to defect from the coalition. In short, he wants party government, even if the conditions for it aren't there.