House Republicans are engaged in what military analysts call a "war of attrition." The winner is the side that can hold out the longest, or convince its opponent that it can. The reason the balloting for speaker has continued for so long is that both sides are trying to convince the other that they won't give in. In wars of attrition, firm resolve wins, but you have to convince your opponent that your resolve is stronger. That is exactly what is happening on ballot after ballot.

The whole process is damaging the Republican Party, obviously, but...

House Republicans are engaged in what military analysts call a “war of attrition.” The winner is the side that can hold out the longest, or convince its opponent that it can. The reason the balloting for speaker has continued for so long is that both sides are trying to convince the other that they won’t give in. In wars of attrition, firm resolve wins, but you have to convince your opponent that your resolve is stronger. That is exactly what is happening on ballot after ballot.

The whole process is damaging the Republican Party, obviously, but that won’t sway individual votes. What will sway them the prospect of members losing support within their own districts, or ending up on the losing side because their compatriots are losing support in their’s and cave. That leaves stragglers out in the cold.

Although Kevin McCarthy has lost a few votes in the successive rounds of balloting, he

  • Retains the vast majority of Republican votes;
  • Is showing he is determined to stay in the race;
  • Has offered the right-wing group as many concessions as he can, if the speaker’s office is to retain any power to move legislation; and
  • Still doesn’t face any serious alternative among Republicans.

It is impossible to know with any confidence what happens next. McCarthy is trying his best to convince the entire Republican caucus that he won’t drop out. If he manages to convince them, he is likely to win. If he doesn’t, then the two sides will bargain to find an acceptable alternative.

The most likely alternative is the second-ranking Republican in the House, Steve Scalise. He is part of the current leadership team, so he is acceptable to the center-right majority of the caucus, but he is more conservative than McCarthy and might be more acceptable to the right.

Still, McCarthy will step aside only if he knows he can’t win and only if the compromise vote on Scalise was settled in advance. That’s possible, but unlikely. Even more unlikely are the candidates put up by the right-wing group, first Jim Jordan (who doesn’t want the job) and then Byron Donalds (who seems reluctant). They couldn’t win support from moderates in the caucus, who would also be bitter about the treatment of McCarthy.

Hard as it is to know who will eventually win, we do know this: victory doesn’t look like much of a prize. The old joke is that first prize is a week’s vacation in Cleveland; second prize is two weeks. The speakership is beginning to look like two weeks in Cleveland in mid-winter. Or perhaps Buffalo. The persistence of the right-wing opposition shows there will be lots of potential “veto” votes available for every bill the speaker pushes.

Victories in battles like this are named after an ancient monarch who defeated the Roman army at a devastating cost to his own. “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans,” he said, “we shall be utterly ruined.” His name was King Pyrrhus, and he gave his name to Pyrrhic victories.