“It’s hammer time!”

— John Boehner, on gaining the US House of Representatives speaker’s gavel, 2011 (apocryphal)

Multiple visits to the United States to cover its politics have taught me one lesson: the most important thing will happen the moment you step on the plane to leave. Every. Damn. Time. This year, it was the apparent collapse of the Republican Party — something prophesied for the longest time, but having a first instalment in the Congress, with an election for the new speaker for the House of Representatives. Or the failure thereof. For despite having the largest majority since the Second World War, the Republicans couldn’t decide on a leader, leaving the second branch of government without a head, and days of negotiation to come — at a time when budget supply has to be renewed every few months, due to a long-running standoff between the White House and Congress.

The crisis came about with the resignation of John Boehner, the imposing, burnished, lachrymose leader since 2011. The speakership is the leader of the largest party in the house, not the umpire, thus the head of the legislative wing of government, and a counterposing figure to a president of a contrary party. She or he is also second in succession should the presidency fall vacant. Boehner thus had enormous power and prestige in his hands, but behind the scenes the position was wrested from him. How devastated was he by this? Well, he went into the press conference announcing his resignation singing “Zippity doo-dah, what a wonderful day”. He wasn’t faking it, neither. Watching him stride in you could see this was one happy, happy man.

Why was this man smiling? Well, since he got the job with the “shellacking” election in 2010, Boehner has been subject to impossible contending forces, which have gone well beyond factional disagreement to outright hate. The man himself is from what was once the right of the party, but has now become the centre-right, and, by inclination, is no centrist. Portraying himself as a self-made man because he worked in the bars his family owned (only in the CVs of American politicians does your parents owning several businesses count as being self-made), Boehner looks the essence of the country-club Republican — indeed his tanned-orangey complexion gives him the tone of polished cedar of the august interiors of such establishments. The colour is an effect of haemochromatosis, excess iron, as is another of Boehner’s trademarks, his tendency to cry in public. Boehner cries at official investitures, during stump speeches, at flag raisings and, most recently, at the Pope’s address to Congress. It’s hilarious, and deeply embarrassing to Republicans, who like to project an image of real men in contrast to “effete” Democrats, that their leader has had the temperament of an emo and the colour of beef jerky.

Right-shifted he may have been, and ready to go in hard, but Boehner was still a parliamentarian who understood that the separation of powers was designed to produce compromise and complementarity. However, his election coincided with the rise of the Tea Party — a mix of a rebranded hard right and new members drawn from the wider shores of anti-government right — and they were in no mood for compromise, or for government of any sort. Claiming to be constitutionalists, they actually regarded the presidency as an illegitimate office — especially when held by a black Democrat — and had a mystical notion that the US should be both the most powerful country in the world and its federal government small enough to be run from a rented office in a suburb of DC.

They demanded that the House serve as a “red base” for mayhem, and to that end put through law after law “repealing” Obamacare and a defunding program. None of these got through the Senate (which was Democratically controlled, then 50:50), and would have been vetoed anyway. They threatened to not raise the debt ceiling, a purely formal motion, but important for business confidence, and in 2013, they forced the Republicans to shut down government by blocking a budget bill for several weeks. Like the shutdown forced by Congress on Bill Clinton, this one appeared to do them no great favours in public opinion. They relied on the informal rule — that the core of the Republican Party would never get a bill passed using Democratic support as the essential part of a majority — against inner-party dissent.

Boehner was no fan of Obamacare, the current budget settings or anything like that. But he knew that whatever gains were made in Congress from this activity, it was damaging the ability of the Republicans to win the national vote for the White House — voters look for local champions from the congresspeople, leaders from their presidential candidates, and thus will they often split their vote. By the middle of last year, he knew he had to turn the party to a more governing cast, by getting some stuff done and through. He was also conscious of the precariousness of his position — the Tea Partyish elements had already deselected House majority leader (second-in-command) Eric Cantor, an Ayn Rand enthusiast even further to the right than Boehner was, guilty of insufficient political ardour. They could do Boehner over in a heartbeat.

“The party that can’t make smooth leadership transitions is in trouble.”

They left him there, with increasing bad feeling — all exacerbated by a bit of strategic screws-tightening by Obama, about “getting things done” — and with Boehner keeping a lid on insurgent activity right through to June. Then along came the now-famous Planned Parenthood videos, and he was done for. The PP videos were a series of surreptitiously filmed and misleadingly edited videos of officials from the major women’s health organisation (part-funded through the federal budget) talking to a stooge from a right-wing activist group about the transfer of body parts from foetuses in the last two weeks or so of the 24-week window for legal abortion. This happens in less than 1% of abortions, always done for physically medically necessary reasons, and Planned Parenthood organises the transfer of body parts (with consent) for medical research. Their fees cover costs.

The videos show PP officials talking about costs, availability and supply of such body parts, and even though it’s all legal, only the most blinkered progressive could deny that the tone and manner has a degree of moral degradation about it. There’s a casualness to the way in which leading Planned Parenthood figures talk of the practice, borne perhaps of the routinisation of the procedure, combined with a degree of swagger (that the meetings are in smart restaurants over bulbous glasses of chardonnay doesn’t help) that would be damaging enough. “The Centre for Medical Progress”, the sham-neutral group responsible for the political punking, didn’t really need to edit the videos to misleadingly suggest that PP was selling body parts for profit — but it did so anyway. That would ultimately prove counter-productive, but its immediate effect was to start a movement to federally defund Planned Parenthood by sending through a budget that Obama would have to veto to preserve existing arrangements. For the post-Tea Party right (now named the “freedom caucus”) of 40-50 of the 247 Republican congresspeople (in the 435-member chamber) this was a test of resolve. It was also taken up by most of the 18 candidates seeking the Republican nomination.

For Boehner, this was a nightmare. Not only would the Republicans be responsible for a second shutdown, they would be defunding an organisation, 95% of whose activity was advice, counselling, STI health, infertility, breast and ovarian cancer matters and other things. The move would not only stir tens of thousands to political activity, it would widen the voting gender gap that favoured Democrats. In Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, it was a potential election ’16 loser. Boehner got the budget/supply bills through, but the victory was a final one — the move has turned the “freedom caucus” into the closest thing the Congress has seen to a separate party-within-a-party for quite a while (far surpassing the right-wing Democrat “blue dogs” who had a choke hold on the party in the 2000s).

The failure to elect a speaker has been the fruit of that. The heir presumptive was Kevin McCarthy, a colourless, reliably centre-right figure from California. A week before the vote, McCarthy had done both bad and good for himself by appearing on Fox News’ The Sean Hannity Show and talking about the establishment of the House’s interminable “Benghazi” committee hearings as a political act designed to damage Hillary Clinton, saying “no one thought that Hillary’s numbers could be damaged … but then the Benghazi committee came along and look where she is now”. The boast will give Clinton her best campaign ads for the ’16 race, but it was designed to burnish McCarthy’s credentials with the “freedom caucus”. It didn’t work. Minutes before the vote on the floor, after desperate lobbying, it was clear there were sufficient freedomists willing to vote against their party to, with the assistance of gleeful Democrats, deny McCarthy the 218 votes required. With no other candidate capable of getting the numbers, the vote was called off.

Mirth ensued from Democrats and others, delighting in the reversal of the party of the establishment being unable to establish anything — “what is the plan? Are we simply not going to have a speaker now?” Rachel Maddow asked, laughing on her MSNBC show. Nevertheless, no one should underestimate the momentousness of the situation. This is a party running the internal matters of the largest economy in the world, and simultaneously without a legitimised leadership process.

The process thus intertwines politics and sovereignty in a manner that makes it real. To have two wings of a party bitching and spitting at each other is one thing; to have them unable to regroup for the purpose of claiming the sovereign power they have won is a moment of interruption in sovereignty. Some on the right have tried to turn this into a positive: “This is the way Congress is supposed to function,” Daniel Harsanyi wrote in The Federalist. Well, it is if you were writing for the original Federalist, when 14 agrarian states (Vermont ratified the constitution in 1791, having been an independent republic before that, so stop that pedantic letter you’re writin’) were running their own affairs. But the idea that a global nuclear-armed empire runs itself that way is the Daniel-Boone-cap view of American affairs. The party is now unable to provide a speaker, with the latest move being an attempt to draft former VP candidate Paul Ryan, who shows no desire to take the job. It’s amazing that the archaic ceremony of a speaker being taken to the chair by colleagues has become real again — they are trying to find someone they can drag to the leadership.

The crisis continues as the Democrats hold their first debate, a five-way thing between the two real contenders — Hillary and Bernie Sanders — and three time-waste- … active citizens, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb. Much discussion has there been about how boring it would be — by which is meant a debate between realistic policy options, not a sort of catwalk of national megalomania, as the Republican contest is.

With the debate about 15 minutes in as we go to press, it’s settled won into the format everyone expected — gotcha questions to Sanders and Clinton, and then getting a beer while the other three get a go. Bernie Sanders declined to do any of the “I’m a father of blah-blah, I’m a keen model train collector” stuff and went straight into the problems facing a US run by the 1% for the 1%. Then he was asked why he had visited the Soviet Union once, and what kind of socialist was he? Clinton began the first of more backflips than seen in that other Vegas standby, Cirque du Soleil, clarifying her very very recent opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, something she’s supported and pushed for years. Jack Webb was a Marine. Lincoln Chafee was a blacksmith. In Canada. And so on. Nevertheless, compared to the Republican process, it’s like debates in the Roman Senate.

The party that can’t make smooth leadership transitions is in trouble. It’s in deeper trouble if part of that party has de facto withdrawn their consent from the very system they were elected to — treating the presidency as an illegitimate office, the Supreme Court as an unelected usurping body. That puts the divisions within the party as greater than the divisions between the party’s mainstream and its opposing party. It’s of far more than local interest, because it presages that even a Republican president might have difficulty getting a program through, if both the insurgents and the Democrats opposed it, albeit for differing reasons. Hammer time’s over. Popcorn time begins.

Peter Fray

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