From Gingrich to McCarthy, the Roots of Governance by Chaos

“The Tea Party movement was more about fighting the Obama administration, Pelosi and Reid,” said a member of that class, Representative Jeff Duncan, Republican of South Carolina.

But, as both an echo of what Mr. Gingrich encountered in 1998 and a harbinger for the present GOP intramural brawling, several restive ultraconservatives set their sights on their elected leaders. In 2015, they effectively forced the resignation of Speaker John Boehner. Three dozen of them, including Mr. Duncan, formed the House Freedom Caucus, a band of hell-no fiscal hard-liners that seemed to exist mainly to inconvenience their party leaders until 2017, when that leader happened to be President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. McCarthy, who was then the House majority leader, predicted that the Freedom Caucus would not be able to stand up to Mr. Trump.

“There’s not a place for them to survive in this world,” he told me.

He was wrong. In a matter of months, the Freedom Caucus repurposed itself as a populist fight club of Trump mini-me’s, although one that did not always appear to be strategically sound. “The one problem I’ve had with the Freedom Caucus,” Mr. Duncan said, “was that they didn’t often define in advance what a win looks like. At some point, you’ve got to be willing to get to a yes.”

Among their new members in 2017 was Mr. Gaetz, a freshman from Florida. Mr. Duncan wryly noted that Mr. Gaetz’s supporting cast in the revolt against Mr. McCarthy included 11 members who are either freshmen or have served only one term.

“They don’t know how to operate in the majority, and they’re just listening to what others say about these rules changes,” Mr. Duncan said. “And then when Kevin’s given them 90 percent of what they’ve asked for, they’ve moved the goal posts.” Ultimately, Mr. Gaetz did give way to Mr. McCarthy in the 14th vote and again in the 15th final vote early Saturday, when he voted “present” both times, rather than no.

Until the fight over the speakership, Mr. Gaetz’s biggest ally in the House has been Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, an unflagging Trump loyalist who this past week helped cajole the former president into putting his support for Mr. McCarthy in writing. In an interview Friday afternoon before the House reconvened for two more rounds of voting, Ms. Greene said that she decided to back Mr. McCarthy’s bid for speaker several months ago, when he signaled his willingness to support hard-line fiscal stances, including not raising the debt ceiling unless certain conditions are met.


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