Republicans didn’t have a speaker for 40 years until Newt Gingrich finally reclaimed the gavel for the party in 1995 after decades in the wilderness. But hanging on to it has proved extremely challenging for Republicans in the years since — a potential object lesson for incoming Speaker Mike Johnson.
From Newt Gingrich to John A. Boehner to Kevin McCarthy and points in between, Republican speakers and speaker candidates have encountered significant turbulence from their own colleagues. The result has been internal revolts of the sort that led to Mr. Johnson’s ascent from practically nowhere to the highest office in Congress on Wednesday.
Some Republicans worry history will repeat itself with a similar result should Mr. Johnson run afoul of some element of the rank and file, an outcome they would like to avoid at all costs considering the abject chaos of recent weeks. Republicans have shown a clear tendency to dump the person at the top when it becomes expedient, much more so than Democrats, and lawmakers hope the habit has not become too ingrained.
“We’ve got a history of displacing speakers now that in my opinion is a cultural challenge that we need to address,” said Representative Mike Garcia, Republican of California.
It has all contributed to a sense that the Republican speakership may be cursed. And it has led to a vicious cycle of sorts in which the party, up against a wall with seemingly no other option, has repeatedly chosen speakers who cannot last in the job.
Mr. Gingrich, the mastermind of the 1994 Republican revolution, was the first to go despite his central role in delivering his party from near-permanent minority status.
Like others to come, he fell victim to the expectations game — one he instigated himself with a prediction that the Republican drive to impeach President Bill Clinton in the fall of 1998 would lead to a gain of House seats that November. Instead, his party lost a handful. The reaction was immediate for Republicans, who had grown exhausted by the political maelstrom constantly engulfing Mr. Gingrich.
Representative Bob Livingston, the Louisiana Republican who was then the popular chairman of the Appropriations Committee, informed Mr. Gingrich that he intended to challenge him for the post. Mr. Gingrich chose not run and lose when he realized he did not have the support. But then Mr. Livingston imploded and gave up the gavel before he ever had it, after accusations of marital infidelity surfaced and he stepped aside. The G.O.P. speaker shuffle was on.
Republicans quickly turned to J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, plucking him from relative obscurity in much the same way that Mr. Johnson experienced this week. Mr. Hastert served until Democrats won back the House in 2007, making him the longest-serving Republican speaker. He was later convicted and sentenced to prison for making payments to cover up sexual abuse from his time as a wrestling coach, years before he arrived in Congress.
After Mr. Hastert came John A. Boehner, a onetime House rabble-rouser himself who joined the leadership during the Republican takeover only to be ousted along with Mr. Gingrich in 1998. He made a surprise comeback in 2007 and then become speaker when Republicans won the House in 2010. He lasted until 2015, when he abruptly resigned rather than subject himself to the same “motion to vacate” from the far right that dethroned Mr. McCarthy this month.
Mr. McCarthy himself tried to succeed Mr. Boehner in 2015 but realized he couldn’t round up the votes (sound familiar?). So Republicans turned to Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, a highly regarded policy wonk who did not want the job but was finally coaxed into the post. After tangling repeatedly with President Donald J. Trump, Mr. Ryan, who had been the party’s nominee for vice president in 2012, chose to retire from Congress in 2018 despite being only 48.
Mr. McCarthy was then next in line to become speaker when Republicans took back the House last year, and he became the latest to lose the job. But the unrest damaged not only him, but the other two top members of the Republican leadership, Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Tom Emmer of Minnesota. Both failed to rally sufficient support for their own speaker bids, though they have held on to their majority leader and party whip positions. Clearly, Republican leadership is not for the faint of heart.
Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who repeatedly voted against Mr. McCarthy before he was elected speaker in January, suggested the pattern reflects a more businesslike attitude toward the speakership among Republicans than Democrats.
“Look, in the private sector, if you don’t do the job, you get fired,” he said.
From the Democratic perspective, Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and a longtime member of the party’s leadership, said Republican speakers end up being consumed by the same forces of discontent the party uses to stoke its voters.
“We’ve seen a party that is deeply divided,” Mr. Hoyer said. “They rejected three leaders in a row. They are divisive. They aim to divide America and get the most hard-line, angry and disaffected to vote for them.”
Another reason Republicans have been somewhat ruthless when it comes to speakers is that they struggle to consolidate the full support of their membership. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the longtime Democratic speaker, faced occasional grumbling about her iron-fisted stewardship, but a real threat never materialized, and she was re-elected speaker in 2019 and again in 2021 even after losing the majority in 2010.
Mr. Boehner, on the other hand, was often at odds with the most conservative House Republicans, whom he branded “knuckleheads.” Mr. Ryan ran afoul of the pro-Trump forces in the party. And Mr. McCarthy was done in by the far right despite his intense efforts to keep them on his side by caving in to their frequent demands.
Eric Cantor, who as a Republican House member from Virginia served as majority leader under Mr. Boehner, said another factor in recent G.O.P. speaker turnover was the political landscape beyond the House.
Mr. Hastert served mostly under a Republican president, George W. Bush, as the nation was contending with the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and their aftermath, a period when Americans sought stability.
Mr. Boehner and Mr. McCarthy, on the other hand, served alongside Democratic presidents and were done in by the unrealistic expectations of Republican colleagues who were infuriated when they were unable to accomplish G.O.P. priorities or ended up compromising with the opposing party.
“There was an expectation that we were going to repeal Obamacare when President Obama was in the White House and Harry Reid and Democrats controlled the Senate,” said Mr. Cantor. “People get mad when you tell them the reality.”
The reality now for Mr. Johnson is that he is in a similar position. The test will be how his own party responds if he is forced into a compromise the far right finds unacceptable.