Rep. Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) announcement that he's dropping out of the race for House speaker has thrown both House Republicans and the people who study them for a living into a bit of disarray. Various outlets have wondered if the GOP is "ungovernable." Here at Vox, Andrew Prokop doesn't mince words, calling the House GOP "a shitshow." Roll Call reports that the question of interim speaker "stumps" experts.
As a presidential scholar looking at the House chaos, I can't help but think of the qualitatively different chaos that reigns in the presidential race. Why does everyone want to be president while no one wants to be speaker? There are some obvious reasons for this — the president gets nuclear codes and embroidered Algerian saddles! But presidents, like House speakers and other party leaders charged with the task of governing, have to wrangle their parties, try to find common ground across the aisle, and get blamed when things go wrong. Thinking about the two processes side by side highlights a few things about institutions, parties, and ideas in American politics — useful for understanding the current moment in the Republican Party.
Americans of all ideological stripes love to hate on parties, which is one of the reasons this blog was created. But the conservative movement has embraced certain anti-party ideas, particularly those that focus on challenging established party elites and eschewing compromise. We see this in the three presidential candidates (Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson) who are not professional politicians and who have suggested, in various ways, that their presidencies would stress efficiency and ideological purity.
While the Tea Party began as a Congress-centered movement, the presidency is a more natural target for anti-party candidates. Independent candidates on the left, right, and center have made presidential bids because of the potential to command media attention on their own, and can make claims that they will govern "independently" and cut through the illegitimate obstacles that parties present.
This is mostly nonsense, of course. But it is nonsense that helps illustrate why ambitious Republicans would set their sights on the presidency rather than on congressional leadership.
The national-local mismatch
Last week I wrote about party structure as a key factor, arguing that the main thing we ought to look at to understand how the Republican Party functions (or doesn't) right now is not that it's ideologically extreme or rigid, or divided, but that it's a national party without formal national mechanisms. As Boris Heersink and Jeff Jenkins point out, the party brand is one of the most valuable goods that the national party can offer — but it's very difficult to protect. As Daniel Klinghard's work suggests, presidents have enjoyed greater capacity to influence the issue stances associated with the party brand since the 1890s, and as Dan Galvin and Brendan Doherty both suggest in their work, presidents also have the ability to shape party structure indirectly through fundraising and other party-building activities. In other words, it's a national-level office with some national-level capabilities.
House leaders are dealing with national issues filtered through our localized system of selecting representatives. This means, as I noted in the earlier post, that issues like the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood are dominating House elections. But these elections are still localized in important ways. Residential patterns mean House districts are often fairly homogenous politically, and compared with Senate seats, they are more vulnerable to primary challenges — smaller, cheaper, and with more frequent elections. Our system — both the institutions established by the Constitution and the party system that developed around them — reflects a mix of national and local considerations. The presidency has some design features that are more compatible with our nationalized politics; House leadership exists at the intersection of two different ways of doing party politics.
This one is simple. A leadership change for the House will mean succeeding John Boehner and responding to four years of Republican control of the chamber. For an ambitious Republican, it's a lot easier to make the case for how you'd be different from Barack Obama.
These are two totally separate parties.
Perhaps the premise of the question is false, because the presidential and congressional parties are two distinct entities sharing a label and a very basic ideological orientation. Members of the House make credible presidential bids much less often than senators and governors. Perhaps as a result, the party in the House has evolved into its own distinct institutional logic (using the term loosely) that isn't really related to what's going on in the presidential race. (While I was writing this, this happened.) During George W. Bush's presidency, it sometimes seemed as if this might be the case, with House Republicans embracing different values and ideas about policy priorities. If this is the case, then maybe Republican presidential hopefuls should be developing cold feet.