Opinion | Can Anyone Lead House Republicans Out of the Darkness?

Who out there picked nine months in the office betting pool for how long Kevin McCarthy would survive as House speaker? Go ahead. Raise your hands. Looks like you’re due a victory lap.

On Tuesday, the right-wing extremists made good on their long-dangled threat to depose Mr. McCarthy — whom they never wanted or trusted as speaker in the first place. The “motion to vacate” introduced Monday by Representative Matt Gaetz, the self-appointed King of the Wingers, wound up passing with the support of eight Republicans and all of the 208 Democrats present. With this decapitation, the first ever in the House, Mr. McCarthy has indeed made history.

But the conference’s clown car rolls on, with Republicans now scrambling to select their next driver. With no obvious candidate who can win full Republican support, the process promises to be messy. For now, Representative Patrick McHenry is serving as the interim speaker, thanks to a 2003 rule that, ironically, required Mr. McCarthy to designate who his temporary successor would be in the event his chair became vacant. For this and other reasons, Mr. McHenry needs to be replaced by a duly elected speaker ASAP.

And so here we go again. The House’s chaos is reminiscent of Mr. McCarthy’s ordeal back in January, when he went 15 rounds with his right-wing rebels, until he finally wore them down enough to squeak into power. I suppose he could be hoping for a new variation on this: let his critics try, and repeatedly fail, to install a suitable replacement, until exhaustion and despair drive them to reinstate him almost by default. But as of Tuesday evening, he was insisting that he would not run for the job again.

So where do the Republicans go from here? Who the heck knows? House members are headed home for the week, with Republicans reportedly looking to hold a forum for speaker candidates next Tuesday and, with a little luck, the actual election on Wednesday. Maybe by then they will have identified a unifying candidate. But don’t hold your breath. It’s not like the interparty fissures have been helped by this latest stunt.

If anything, after all this, Mr. Gaetz and his fellow disrupters are going to be more full of themselves than ever. They have done what no other rebel band has managed before. They are triumphant and empowered, which bodes very poorly for the coming speaker’s race — not to mention the future functionality of this Congress.

As for the Democrats, before the ouster vote there was much speculation that they might cut a deal with Mr. McCarthy to help him keep his fancy title. That obviously didn’t pan out when he publicly declared that he would not offer them anything. But if the Republican dysfunction going forward gets bad enough or lasts long enough, maybe Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader, should consider wading into the negotiating pool — offering support for a candidate palatable to the Republican conference’s nonwingers. Provided, of course, that Mr. Jeffries’s team gets something substantive in return.

Which raises another fun question: If you were a Democratic lawmaker in a position to help the Republicans dig themselves out of this hole, what would be your price? Would you try to extract policy concessions? Political ones? What about changes to the way the House operates?

In recent days, ideas from all of these categories were whizzing around Washington as people speculated about what the Democrats might try to squeeze out of Mr. McCarthy. Some of the possibilities were largely policy-focused, such as continued military support for Ukraine — or, say, sticking with the spending levels Republicans agreed to in this summer’s debt-ceiling deal.

Others were overtly political — and borderline ridiculous — such as making the speaker promise that the National Republican Congressional Committee wouldn’t spend money against vulnerable Democrats next year.

There was much buzz around pushing for an end to the impeachment investigation of President Biden. And I absolutely get the logic here, seeing as how Mr. McCarthy announced the inquiry in a sad attempt to distract his hard-liners from attacking him. (How did that work out for you, Kev?) That said, the inquiry has so far been such a humiliating flop that it hardly seems worth spending political capital on pulling the plug — which would likely just set the right-wing baying that the investigation would have eventually been a roaring success if only the Democrats hadn’t conspired with establishment Republicans, the Deep State, George Soros and probably Taylor Swift to shut it down.

There was even a smattering of possibilities that fell into the make-the-House-saner, benefit-both-sides category — which are the ones I’d love to see the Dems really squeeze the Republicans on if they get the chance. We’re talking about basic changes to make the institution run better, such as removing one or more of the hard-liners from the Rules Committee and returning the motion to vacate to its pre-Gaetz status, making it impossible for a lone unhinged member to threaten the speaker. And if the Republicans are really in a bind, how about pushing them to abandon their so-called Hastert rule, the counterproductive practice of their speakers not allowing a vote on any bill that lacks the support of “a majority of the majority”?

Would these be tough items for an aspiring speaker to deliver? Absolutely. Are they all long shots? Sure. Then again, until recently who would have thought that Democrats would link arms with Republican extremists to successfully depose a speaker? We are in uncharted territory here, people. Might as well take a few risks.

Of course, the Democrats may ultimately decide it’s not worth getting involved. This dumpster fire is, after all, a Republican problem. But specifically because of that, it may be too much to expect them to fix the situation on their own.