Michael Leppert: When a speaker stands for nothing, danger lurks

Early in the Broadway smash “Hamilton,” the title character meets his nemesis, Aaron Burr. The polished and savvy politician advises young Alexander to “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” Republicans in the US House seem to be trying to follow the Burr plan, with the obvious exception of the “talk less” part.

The American public recently witnessed a governmental process it hasn’t seen in 100 years: multiple ballots for speaker of the House. During that century, the selection had routinely become an inside job. The majority party would work it out in private and then come to the chamber and hold the ceremonial vote for the citizenry to witness. It had become such a snoozer that most of America paid no attention at all.

Not this year. Not with this Congress. Not with this party.

The fight within the House Republican caucus all comes down to a matter of trust. Some of the staunchest opponents of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ascension consistently claimed their lack of trust in him was the issue. What took a backseat in this process, however, was the public trust. Reeling from things like the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, ongoing election denialism and conspiracy theorizing, this caucus already was weak in this category. The events of the last week all but obliterated what little trust remained.

In an attempt to mitigate the embarrassing chaos, some said that holding this process in public was actually a good thing. As Jarrett Stepman opined for The Christian Post: “At a time when most of the big decisions in our society are made by unelected bureaucrats and courts, and when elected representatives are more likely to listen to lobbyists and the donor class than to the American people, we should be encouraged by our representatives showing a little independence.”

So, there’s that. But this bunch has more than “a little” independence. Its primary feature is that it lacks loyalty or commitment to anyone or anything at all. Due to the Democratic control in the Senate and the White House, the House was already expected to be big on investigations and grandstanding, and small on policy and governing for the next two years. Those early predictions underestimated the depth of the coming turmoil.

Never in my lifetime has there been an entity, a conference, a caucus of such governmental significance so entirely void of meaningful purpose.

This battle wasn’t about intraparty disagreements about the Southern border, Social Security or Medicaid, taxation, abortion … you know, the little stuff. This was about whether members like Reps. Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert have faith in McCarthy. This nonspecific distrust sounds like the playground, not the U.S. House.

McCarthy’s clout comes from promises, back slaps, campaign funding and apparently limitless sucking up to a couple of hundred members of the House. Many Americans believe that is the way leadership has always been established in the cesspool known as Congress. The problem here is the promises have been too wide, too varied, too conflicted, and most of all, too shallow.

None of the promises, and none of the fight, had anything to do with any identifiable ideology. This void is the reason this bunch is so dangerous. Few expected the House to pass new policies due to divided government. But the House still must participate in the funding of it. McCarthy’s dealmaking to win the gavel made that duty more difficult because of concessions he made to his detractors.

McCarthy said, “Don’t judge us on how we start, watch how we finish …” Count on that, Kevin.

But Americans should be asking the new speaker the same question Hamilton asked Burr in response to his early advice: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

Michael Leppert is an author, educator and a communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com. This commentary was originally published at indianacapitalchronicle.com. Send comments to [email protected]