If U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise is disappointed that he won’t be climbing yet another step up the GOP’s Congressional hierarchy any time soon, at least there’s a silver lining.
Staying put as House Majority Whip — and not having to place his future in the hands of a wildly unpredictable, arguably suicidal, caucus — sounds like a pretty good plan to me.
Scalise’s campaign for House Majority Leader came to a sudden end last week when the man holding the chamber’s No. 2 post, Kevin McCarthy, abruptly dropped out of the running to replace John Boehner as House Speaker.
The development unleashed utter chaos among the rank and file, and there were reports of actual tears being shed in the cloakroom. It also left the Republicans without an obvious choice for the top post other than Ways and Means Chairman and former Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who made it crystal clear that if he did step up, he’d be taking one for the team.
Scalise was telling people he had the votes to win the majority leader election, which, unlike the speaker’s job, is conducted only among fellow Republicans. But that contest too was shaping up as yet another flashpoint between uncompromising hardcore conservatives and those who still cling to the idea that the government should govern.
The rightwingers, organized under the newly formed House Freedom Caucus, had already made Boehner’s job impossible, to the point where he simply walked away.
The same group was ready to deny McCarthy the votes he’d need to overcome automatic Democratic opposition in the chamber-wide speaker vote, despite the lack of a Plan B (although McCarthy didn’t help himself when he publicly cast the House’s Benghazi investigative committee as a pretense for weakening Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s standing with voters). Who knows what else they’d be willing to do to punish those they view as weak-kneed, even if that person happens to be a true believer by any traditional definition?
That, as Ryan seems to understand, is a no-win situation for someone who’s clearly still nursing ambitious plans for his own future. Ryan’s just 45, which gives him the luxury of waiting for the right moment. One unnamed friend attributed Ryan’s reluctance to take on the speaker job right now to the fact that “he’s not a f---ing moron.”
Same goes for Scalise, who just turned 50 and who certainly has big time ambitions of his own.
The rub on him is that, as a conservative Southerner, he’s ideally positioned to build bridges between the establishment and the House’s more ideological wing. He’s well-liked and considered an accessible straight shooter among his colleagues, important attributes when your job is to wrangle and track votes. He even has something of a history of working well with Democrats, dating back to his days in the Louisiana Legislature.
Indeed, news reports late last year that he’d once spoken to a group linked to Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke might have doomed another politician, but a quick show of support from U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, an African-American Democrat who served with Scalise in the state House, helped stop the bleeding.
Frankly, as much as Scalise needs to worry about the party’s right flank, he still owes Richmond a big one.
Despite all that, Scalise was facing skepticism from some who disapproved of Boehner and had no interest in promoting a member of his team. There’s no telling whether they would have been willing to sacrifice him in the name of the cause.
Worse yet would have been a scenario in which Scalise won the promotion but was set up to fail at the job itself by a group that’s perfectly willing to chew up and spit out its own.
In fact, Scalise would be best off just keeping his head down and hoping the extremists punch themselves out, or that the Republicans’ existential crisis somehow passes. It’s clearly no time to let others make an example of him. Not if he hopes to be around for the long haul.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.