Scalise’s health gave him strength enough to serve. But his political health is not good. He dropped out of the race Thursday night, saying there would be too many GOP defectors to win formal votes in the narrowly divided House.
He has a nice consolation prize waiting for him: He doesn’t have to play convincingly that he’s actually Speaker of the House, as Kevin McCarthy did during his short tenure. His right to speak would have been an illusion—no authority, no protection, no thanks.
There is no real job to fill.
Because right now, Trump is the only leader with a sustained following within the modern Republican Party. That’s true even though the GOP is filled with people who quietly want him out, and a small number of leaders who are loudly advocating for him. So far, no Republican in the Trump era has been able to emerge as a true leader — not by seeking alliances with him, siding with him, or trying to keep a safe distance from him.
The House drama shows that if Trump is a dictator, he isn’t too concerned with using power in spite of himself. Instead, he treated the turmoil and ritual humiliations — first by McCarthy, then by Jordan, now by Scalise — as a sideshow. In important respects, he is right.
Domestic politics, in both parties, can feel isolating and claustrophobic. This has certainly been on clear display among Republicans over the past two weeks. The resounding insults, the personal rivalries dressed up as matters of policy, the collapsing alliances – they can seem impenetrable and disconnected from the real issues of the wider world.
At some distance, however, it’s clear that the shadow over the House GOP is the same shadow that looms over the broader Republican Party and over all of American politics. As long as Trump remains the dominant figure in his party and his future remains unresolved, there can be no return to normalcy, to anything that was normal. Will he be convicted of crimes in 2024 or will he defeat a politically vulnerable position and return to the presidency? Or perhaps both?
Until these questions are answered, “Who will be the next speaker?” The most obvious answer is “Who cares?” The speaker race is a battle on the margins to hold a job that promises little power or dignity.