Had Dr William Thornton, the original architect of the Capitol Building, any foresight, he might not have designed a dome above its central rotunda. He’d have planned a pitched circus tent to match the great honking clown shows that have lately become something of a feature of US politics.

Tuesday was a case in point. The spectacle inside the House of Representatives was hardly the stuff of the shining city on the hill. Over three long, tedious, and largely pointless votes to select the next Speaker of the House, Congressional folk on both sides of the aisle demonstrated why America’s democracy befits so many of the carnival barkers currently plying their trade in Washington. Democrats displayed unity behind Hakeem Jeffries, their new House Minority Leader, but even here there was plenty of playing to the galleries by the usual suspects who should have moved into comedy rather than politics. The best we can say is that at least Steve Cohen left his chicken at home and Democrats managed to project the illusion of a unified caucus.

On the other side, the Republicans revealed the considerable weakness of their position. Back in November’s midterms, you might remember, the Republicans won something of a pyrrhic victory that translated into a tiny majority in the House. It means that the Republicans became the House Majority party and get to pick the Speaker of the House, replacing their much-loathed adversary, Nancy Pelosi.

In a world where GOP leaders line all their ducks up in a row, that would still mean that Kevin McCarthy would finally become Speaker. After all, he’s been preparing for the role for years. This past week it was announced that he’d already moved into the Speaker’s Office. The only thing remaining was to get his party to confirm his nomination.

Except the Republican Party doesn’t do that. Or, at least, not *this* Republican Party. It is now a party quite unabashed about how much it solely exists to wield power. Shaping government policy is less important than playing to the crude partisan divisions of the nation. A small but increasingly vocal section of the party suddenly finds that they have the important votes in all matters. Just like the Democrats have had to live with Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema holding the balance of power in the Senate for two years, Republicans now have to live with the reality of people like Matt Gaetz of Florida doing very Matt Gaetz-like things.

Across those three votes on Tuesday, 20 Republicans voted against McCarthy. At first, their votes were spread thinly across a few fringe right-wing opponents but, by the third vote, the rebellion had coalesced around the figure of Jim Jordan, the congressman from Ohio. Jordan has earned a reputation as being a lightning rod for right-wing discontent. He’s been seen as Donald Trump’s attack dog. Here he has become the focus of the anger of a group of radical conservatives who continue to deny the 2020 victory and see attempts to prosecute those that took part in the 6 January insurrection as being motivated by politics.

At one point, Jordan stood up to nominate McCarthy. It was a chance to grandstand and one began to wonder if this was the whole purpose of the rebellion. Yet no sooner had he sat down that Gaetz was on his feet, nominating Jordan once again. McCarthy proceeded to relive his earlier loss and, in fact, over the day, his vote went down by one after another rebel switched sides. For the first time in one hundred years, the House failed to nominate a Speaker.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. A compromise candidate might emerge. Steve Scalise’s name is routinely mentioned but it’s hard to see where compromise settles in this badly divided party. Democrats could eventually offer to support a compromise but, again, any compromise would have to carry a majority of Republicans to be sustainable. It’s not entirely unlikely that a week from now, we’re talking about a figure from the party who has thus far had little name recognition. It’s also worth noting that the Speaker need not be a sitting member of the House.

No doubt the Speaker will be nominated long before we get into the outlandish suggestions (Donald J. Trump) but this already highlights why Republican chances in 2024 should not be overegged. When the pragmatics of victory come down to how you manage to motivate that last five per cent of your vote, these petty divisions matter. When magnified across a nation, they make the difference between victory and what happened in November, when Democrats were at the nadir of the election cycle and were still not punished for the nation’s economic woes.

The Republican problem over the Speaker is a symptom of their underlying sickness. The longer it goes on, the more acute the diagnosis.

Follow David on Twitter: @DavidWaywell

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