Who Wants to be Speaker of the House?

From 1998 to 2002, I was one of two Vice Deans of Columbia Law School. Although the other Vice Dean and I had the same title, we had quite different duties. The other Vice Dean did all of the traditional administrative tasks that a dean assigns to a vice dean or, as the position is called in some law schools, associate dean or deputy dean--chiefly ensuring that all of the courses that the school offers are in fact being taught by regular faculty, adjuncts, etc. I was what a colleague jokingly called the "Vice Dean for Danish," by which the colleague did not mean that I arranged travel for scholars visiting from Copenhagen but that I plied my colleagues with food (such as breakfast pastries) at various events in order to build up our sense of community. To be sure, I mostly was responsible for building intellectual community, so much of the food I secured was at faculty workshops, symposia, and the like, but even so, my modest success as the Vice Dean for Danish didn't really count as administrative experience.

Nonetheless, in part because the word "dean" was part of my title during those four years, ever since then I have from time to time received inquiries from search committees asking whether I would be interested in applying to be a law school dean. I invariably say no. I do so for two main reasons: (1) I would be bad at the job. I'm not exactly meek, but I am a bit conflict-averse in a way that I think would make me unwilling to say no nearly as often as a responsible dean ought to say no to bad (or unaffordable or otherwise impractical) ideas. (2) I would be unhappy in the job. I became a law professor because I like to teach and write. There are, of course, deans who continue to do both even while deaning, and I have a whole lot of admiration and respect for them, but if they're deaning responsibly, they're undoubtedly doing a lot less teaching and writing than they would be doing if they were simply regular faculty members. So even if I would be good at the job (and, as I said in (1), I think I'd be bad at it), I wouldn't want to be a dean of a law school. In my view, it's important to know the difference between what one is good at and what one likes to do. Fortunately, I'm reasonably good at enough things that I also like to do, that crossing dean of a law school off the list isn't a problem.

All of which is an admittedly roundabout and self-indulgent way of raising a question about the now-vacant position of Speaker of the House, which was held by Kevin McCarthy until yesterday. I get that the immediate question is whether anybody can secure a majority in the House of Representatives. But the prior question, I suppose, is why anybody would want the job. In the old days, powerful Speakers could rule with an iron fist. At least since primaries replaced smoke-filled rooms and especially in light of the prevalence of safe seats, a Speaker these days is as much a tool of their party's caucus in the House as its leader--as the grief that Matt Goetz was able to dish out to McCarthy underscores. McCarthy's successor will not have an easier task. So why does anyone want the job? Let's consider three possibilities.

A) Some people might actually be able to get things done through a combination of smarts, political savvy, and toughness. Nancy Pelosi comes to mind. I have enormous respect for the way she was able to hold the Democratic coalition together. Even so, the far right of the Republican Party in the House right now is much less pragmatic than is or was the left wing of the Democratic Party when Pelosi was Speaker. If there is a change in control of the House after the 2024 election, I could envision a potential  Democratic Speaker--presumably Hakeem Jeffries--succeeding in ways reminiscent of Pelosi. I can't see any Republican Speaker, no matter how politically gifted, succeeding these days.

B) Some potential Speakers are delusional. Most politicians who serve in the House have been either very good or very lucky at politics. They figure they've succeeded in the past--sometimes against long odds--so they can succeed where others have failed. They attribute McCarthy's failure to his personal failings, rather than to the structure of our politics, especially in the Republican Party. The fundamental attribution error is common, but it's hardly a qualification for the job of Speaker or a recipe for success.

C) Some Republicans might announce their candidacy simply for ego satisfaction and what they perceive (erroneously) as the opportunity to wield power. All politicians at the national level are ambitious, so the thirst for the (perceived) power and the attention that go with being Speaker are not themselves disqualifying. But it's also not a predictor of any sort of success.

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I assume that some Republican will eventually be named the new Speaker. Between now and when that occurs, there will be much attention to the drama of it all and also some speculation about whether Democrats misplayed their hand by not extracting concessions from McCarthy in exchange for enough votes to keep him in the Speaker's chair. The latter will be wholly beside the point. McCarthy told Jeffries he would make no concessions. Moreover, he arguably had no choice but to refuse to negotiate with the Democrats because it's not even clear that the "moderate" Republicans would have continued to support McCarthy if his retention as Speaker depended on Democratic support. But even if McCarthy had offered Democrats a deal that was not a poison pill to virtually all Republicans, Democrats would have been fools to trust McCarthy, who lost his Speakership because the Gaetz faction thought he reneged on promises he made to them and who also reneged on the deal he struck with President Biden during the negotiations over the debt ceiling.

Whether a McCarthy successor is better able to honor commitments remains to be seen. I don't want to commit the fundamental attribution error myself. It's quite possible that in order to be elected Speaker in this House, one must make a set of promises to far-right Republicans that one cannot honor if one also wants to strike deals with Democrats to do the bare minimum to keep the government functioning.

Put differently, perhaps it can be said of Kevin McCarthy that he was a terrible Speaker but anyone in his position would have been a failure too.