Representative Jason Chaffetz has announced that he will seek to be elected speaker of the House, challenging Representative Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive candidate of the House Republican leadership. Republicans are restive, and conservatives who cheered the retirement of John Boehner are in the long run unlikely to be satisfied with either Chaffetz or McCarthy, though killing McCarthy’s bid seems to be at the top of their agenda at the moment, so electing Chaffetz might seem to them a victory.
(Florida’s Representative Daniel Webster is in the race, too, a fact that has been met by his colleagues with more or less complete indifference.)
Why not open it up and make it a real race? A Speaker of the House Mia Love or a Speaker of the House Justin Amash might prove a welcome tonic.
Or—if we’d prefer to let one of those two Republican worthies turn 40 first—why not Mac Thornberry?
If we can ignore, for the moment, the fact that he has not expressed any interest in the job . . .
Beyond my own regional prejudice (Thornberry represents a Texas panhandle district adjacent to my home town), there is a pretty good case to be made for him. He has served with some distinction as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, where he has been a very hard critic of the Obama administration on the Iran nuclear deal, ISIS, and Middle Eastern policy in general; he also led a years-long investigation of defense acquisitions and wrote a bill to reform our inefficient and wasteful military procurement practices, currently under consideration in the House. If a few years from now President Cruz should decide to get serious about setting our national finances in order, Thornberry would be a valuable legislative partner.
But the bill that speaks best of Thornberry is one that died: the Oversight of Sensitive Military Operations Act, which sought to restore Congress’s proper role in the decision to go to war, a legislative prerogative that has been eroded by presidential arrogation. The most dramatic example of this in recent history was the Obama administration’s decision to go to war in Libya without so much as consulting Congress, conducting what critics such as Bruce Ackerman called an illegal war. As in the matter of the Iran deal, Thornberry is deeply and rightly concerned that the executive’s usurpation of legislative powers is throwing our constitutional order out of balance. The presidency cannot be restored to its proper role—chief administrator of the federal bureaucracy—without restoring Congress to its proper role.
Thornberry has an American Conservative Union ranking in of 95 percent and an NRA rating of 92 percent. He gets perfect marks from the National Right to Life Committee, the American Family Association, etc. He is good on immigration. He is smart and unsentimental.
Thornberry came in with the 1994 Gingrich gang and was a signatory of the original Contract with America. He has the safest Republican seat in the country—Republicans have a 32-point registration advantage in his district—and in 2012 the Democrats didn’t even bother putting up a candidate against him. (In 2014, the sacrificial jackass got 12.8 percent of the vote; Thornberry had a stronger challenge in the primary, when his top challenger took 18.6 percent.) Politically, he isn’t going to be looking over his shoulder in the foreseeable future.
Conservatives in the ranks are angry—some of them have grown positively stupid with rage—and the GOP leadership in Congress has given them reason to be frustrated. Republicans could do much worse than to choose a capable and detail-oriented legislator who also is conservative to the bone. If Thornberry doesn’t suit, there are any number of excellent possibilities: Tom Cole, for example, who would bring with him the added pleasure of seeing the purportedly anti-intellectual white-man’s party led in the House by a Chickasaw Yalie history professor. (Interesting fact: All of the Native Americans currently serving in Congress are Republicans. Sorry, Senator Warren.)
It would be excellent to have a Republican speaker who could help the House of Representatives recover its institutional self-respect. With all due respect to Kevin McCarthy and Jason Chaffetz, excellent public servants both, neither strikes me as the man for that job.