Will the GOP keep repeating the same mistake?

When a leadership post is vacant, Republicans don't ask: who can advocate most persuasively for the party, who would be the best tactician and strategist, who could best forge a consensus among the party’s disparate elements?  They ask only: whose turn is next?  And that condemns them to incompetent leaders.

Early reports suggest that the GOP is about to make the same mistake again: Kevin McCarthy is said to be the likely choice to replace John Boehner.  It's the “his turn next” syndrome yet again, since if my three questions were asked, McCarthy is just about the last person that anyone would think of.

Let's compare him to just one prominent Republican congressman: Trey Gowdy.  There will surely be others who could demonstrate McCarthy's shortcomings just as well, but Gowdy is sufficiently well-known to make a comparison that most readers can readily follow.

Who would advocate more persuasively for the party, McCarthy or Gowdy?  Of course, there is no comparison.  Gowdy is articulate, persuasive, and a commanding presence.  He has the gift of explaining complex issues with brevity, clarity, and force.  McCarthy?  He has real trouble speaking coherently in public.  Dana Milbank summed up McCarthy's problem this way: “put him in front of a crowd and his words come out as if they have been translated by Google from a foreign language.”

With this kind of handicap, it's easy to understand why few people will recall having heard him speak: he doesn't risk doing it too often.  And yet the GOP now wants to make him its major spokesman – the man who must make the case for the party to the public on any issue of the day.  It's hard to find words to capture the degree of foolishness that this would represent.

Next question: strategy and tactics.  Gowdy is completely in charge of any issue he undertakes, and his tactical mastery has been demonstrated many times in his handling of the Benghazi committee.  He is resourceful, energetic, and shrewd – just the qualities that GOP voters missed in Boehner.  But McCarthy has been very much a part of the somnolent drift of Boehner's leadership team and has never shown any signs that he saw its limitations.

Last question: forging consensus in the caucus.  Gowdy is trusted by everyone, and because he is known as someone on the one hand energetic and forceful, but on the other judicious, accurate, and controlled, he'd have a much better chance of retaining the confidence of all factions in the Republican caucus.  But on this score, McCarthy is again the worst possible choice.  As Boehner's chief lieutenant, he inherits all the factional distrust that Boehner's ineptness built up.

Republicans now have a wonderful opportunity.  The inarticulate and passive leadership of Boehner has taken a huge toll on the morale of rank-and-file GOP members, but the party now has the chance to put all of that behind it.  All that the House GOP has to do is ask: who among our members has in the highest degree those qualities needed for leadership?  It's a simple question, and not one that has much use for seniority.  Every single member of the House should be looked at before the question is answered, regardless of whether a given member decides to put him- or herself forward.  And surely nobody can doubt that were that simple question the focus of the proceedings, the present majority leader would not be in consideration.

The effect on party membership nationwide of another lazy "it's his turn next" decision would be devastating.  It would infuriate the vast majority who wants new leadership, not a continuation of the old.  It would be seen as a repeat of what happened the last time the public registered its disapproval of House leadership, by forcing Eric Cantor out; then too the party establishment ignored the rebuke and promoted McCarthy.  But worst of all, it would spell out to GOP voters that the party is incorrigible, that it can't learn from experience, and that it will go on making the same costly mistake until the end of time.  That way lies more rallying behind Trump, and even the disaster of a third party.

John M Ellis is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and chairman of the California Association of Scholars.