Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Opinion | Neither Steve Scalise nor Jim Jordan is an ideal speaker candidate

Opinion | Neither Steve Scalise nor Jim Jordan is an ideal speaker candidate

The House speaker contest is shaping up to be a battle between two top Republicans: Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio). So far, neither has demonstrated the essential ingredient for a successful speaker: an ability to appeal to moderates and grow the party.

The two men are light-years apart in their demeanors and talents. Scalise is a mainstream conservative who has risen through the ranks the old-fashioned way — cultivating friendships and focusing on his ability to count votes and shape legislation. He is also a strong fundraiser. If members want a conservative who values consensus over confrontation and prefers small victories over potential defeat, Scalise is the obvious choice.

Jordan, by contrast, rose to prominence as leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus and was one of Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders, earning him the former president’s endorsement for the speakership. Jordan has moderated his approach in recent years, showing a willingness to accommodate intraparty realities. But his main value as speaker would be his talent on television and his willingness to fight Democrats aggressively.

These considerations are important. A successful speaker must build consensus and make effective contrasts with Democrats. That person will also need to raise money for the party and make the case for a Republican majority in front of cameras and on the campaign trail.

But what neither man has shown is an intuitive understanding of how to appeal to moderates. That might seem irrelevant in a chamber where almost every GOP member is some shade of conservative. But the next speaker cannot fix their gaze on who’s inside the GOP tent; they must also look for who could be persuaded to enter it.

Success at the inside game requires finding a way to frame legislation that can ultimately get moderates’ assent. Much attention is paid to the GOP’s combative right wing, but 18 Republicans represent seats that Biden won in 2020. Understandably, they have different priorities than members in solid-red rural seats. Play too far to the right, and they might become the recalcitrants holding up legislation.

The fact that Democrats run the Senate and hold the White House also means the House speaker will ultimately have to move to the center. Budget bills must be passed at some point, which means accommodating Democratic priorities. A speaker who grasps this and knows what sort of GOP priorities would appeal to moderates and conservatives would be likelier to get something from these negotiations than one who pushes too far to the right.

Moderate sensibilities are also key to keeping or expanding the House majority. Those 18 members in Biden seats can’t win if they are only communicating only with Trump conservatives. Only five Democrats represent seats Trump won, and only seven more hold seats Biden won by five points or less. The GOP’s disappointing midterms gains were due to their inability to persuade moderates who disapproved of Biden to back Republicans.

The next speaker must be someone who makes solving this problem the party’s top political priority. Former speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) raised an incredible amount of money, which he and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer (Minn.) poured into target races. But money only facilitates a messaging campaign, and the GOP’s contentless anti-Biden message was clearly inferior to the Democrats’ anti-MAGA and pro-abortion rights crusade. That won’t change unless the next speaker prioritizes it.

Members should demand that Jordan and Scalise (or any other candidate who might emerge) explain how they intend to appeal to moderates. Members should insist on examples of legislation the candidates would want to move that would unite moderates and GOP loyalists. And they should insist that the speaker come away from any budget negotiations with tangible wins that appeal to the emerging Republican majority. Punting on questions such as these would guarantee more infighting and disappointments later.

House Republicans today can succeed only if they elect a speaker who can effectively target their adversaries but also forge new alliances. Overlooking moderates when making that choice is a sure way to court defeat.

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