Was it "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or "The Taking of Pelham 123"?
Last week's historic clash over the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives made me wonder. As I finished this column up, the House on Friday had completed 13 ballots in the effort to pick a leader. No candidate had earned enough votes, but Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California was moving closer to becoming speaker.
One might think electing a speaker would be easy since Republicans regained the majority and, as a party, ought to be thrilled to put someone in the seat previously held by Democrat Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. McCarthy's presumed ascent into the role failed to become reality time after time though, helping Democrats strengthen the narrative that the GOP remains unable to effectively govern.
It was members of the GOP who gave Democrats that gift. A small Republican group -- 20 early on but dwindling to six by Friday afternoon -- used the fact that Republicans outnumber Democrats by only nine seats to play the spoiler role. They wanted to weaken the speaker's role and strengthen the power of individual members.
To hear the holdout Republicans, they were playing the part not unlike Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 "Mr. Smith" film in which a lone, principled senator refuses to give in to pressure and single-handedly maintains a 25-hour filibuster in a fight against political corruption.
But 200 or more Republicans consistently favored McCarthy. Just how much power should that group cede to the sliver of disaffected caucus members who had successfully blocked House business as they sought rules changes to expand their capacity to wield influence? Some Republicans likened their disgruntled colleagues to terrorists. So maybe it is "The Taking of Pelham 123," whether it's the 1974 Walter Matthau version or the 2009 Denzel Washington movie about a group of men who hijack a New York subway car and demand a ransom.
It's particularly disgusting that a few of the holdouts seized upon their success in blocking McCarthy's ascent to send out fundraising appeals, suggesting they were all that stood between corruption of institutional Republicans and the return of the House to "the people." Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, among the biggest attention-seekers in politics, even nominated Donald Trump to become the speaker of the House.
That should be especially repugnant to all Americans in a week that included the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection Trump encouraged.
Even Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia, herself a frequent grandstander, declared the holdouts' actions as obstruction and unneeded drama the American people are tired of.
The holdouts made Republicans look like buffoons. But I didn't think it was a great look for the smug Democrats either. The GOP chaos was undoubtedly and understandably amusing to them but at some point the damage wasn't just to the GOP, but to the House and, ultimately, to the nation.
It's unfortunate -- and indicative of how eagerly both parties embrace national division -- that the majority Republicans wouldn't dare consider some collaboration across the aisle with a handful of moderate Democrats to reach enough votes to install a speaker. Wouldn't it be preferable to find some common ground that could be fertile for legislative success over the next two years than to empower the most unreasonable, hostage-taking faction of the GOP, a faction Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska said knows only how to be on the losing side, not how to govern.
Democrats may have been just as unreasonable in refusing to consider a speaker election that veered toward ... egad! ... moderation.
Who serves as speaker of the House doesn't have much direct impact on your daily life or mine. But having functional representative government does. Last week does not bode well for the next two years.
Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.