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CLARENCE PAGE: Today’s Republicans need to get out of their own way

As the House ballots reached double digits in the attempt to elect California Republican Kevin McCarthy to be House speaker, a catchy refrain from the musical “Hamilton” grew louder in my mind: “You don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes …”

Ah, how embarrassing it must have been for McCarthy, who used to whip votes for then-Speaker John Boehner during Barack Obama’s presidency, that it took 15 ballots to finally win his own speakership.

The larger question: What’s happened to Republican unity?

Looking back, it doesn’t take much of an autopsy to see the fractured state of today’s Republican Party as the latest twist in a 30-year GOP power struggle, an era that began with then-Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich’s displacement of then-House Minority Leader Bob Michel in the 1990s.

It was a different political era. Although Michel was never part of the majority party during his 38 years in the House, he was notable for striking bipartisan bargains and friendships. In a model of bipartisan civility, he famously shared rides on weekends with fellow Illinoisan Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, a leading Democrat.

That spirit of comity faded after President Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost the Senate and House for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich’s Contract With America agenda helped Republicans nationalize the race and initially strengthened Gingrich, who shared with Clinton an affection for big-thinking policy issues.

But by the mid-1990s, Republicans’ failure to achieve common ground forced government shutdowns that Clinton used to his advantage. Casting Republicans as opponents of such popular programs as Medicare, Medicaid and public-school education, Clinton struck a middle-of-the-road agenda that helped him survive his impeachment in 1998.

Clinton’s job approval actually rose partly in a backlash against his impeachment.

Republicans lost House seats in that year’s elections and Gingrich resigned from the speakership, taking up a new role as an internet-era elder statesman and media pundit.

In that role, it was illuminating to watch him tear into the small group of House Republicans who refused to support McCarthy’s speaker bid. On “Fox &Friends” last week, Gingrich said the holdouts were “blackmailing” McCarthy, the party and the American public by stopping the conference from being able to move forward with its agenda.

“I don’t know what their endgame is,” he said.

I agree. As with the mob that assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6 two years ago, the current House dysfunction appears to have deep roots, a combination of the Stop the Steal aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency on top of the Obama-era tea party and the 8-year-old Freedom Caucus in the GOP’s far-right congressional wing.

And while they figure out whatever their endgame might be, they’ve got a great vehicle in today’s media age for building their own profiles and campaign coffers, independent of the traditional party leadership that used to maintain more control on party unity and messaging.

The same happens on the left, of course. Obama broke new ground in his use of Twitter and other internet campaigning but Donald Trump, among many other conservatives, showed he could play that game, too, for better or worse.

The result has been an informal but quite potent rise of new stars of performative politics such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida as de facto leaders in opposition to McCarthy, even though you could hardly squeeze a playing card between their ideological differences.

Political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins argue in their 2016 book “Asymmetric Politics” that the differences between today’s major parties are not about personalities but about structure. “While the Democratic Party is fundamentally a group coalition,” they write, “the Republican Party can be most accurately characterized as the vehicle of an ideological movement.”

The same can be said about Democrats, though in recent years we have seen progressive Democrats largely embraced by the party establishment, while Republican populism is more freewheeling and unpredictable in its challenges to the system.

Either way, McCarthy and his fellow traditionalists have a big challenge on their hands as they try to restore some civility and order within their own party.

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to do that, too. But compared with today’s Republicans, she made it look easy.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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