Kevin McCarthy’s big mistake was trying to govern.
The now ex-speaker’s historic ouster came only three days after he was forced to use Democratic votes to head off a damaging government shutdown that his own party’s absolutism was about to trigger. This compounded his original sin, earlier this year, of blinking when House GOP hardliners threatened to cause a disastrous default on America’s debts that could have thrown the economy into chaos and caused global panic.
McCarthy’s short speakership underscored how the Republican Party in the age of Donald Trump has turned into one of the great forces of instability in American life, and potentially the world, with the ex-president dominating the 2024 GOP primary as he takes aim at a wrecking ball second term. A party that once defined conservatism as preserving a traditional sense of steadiness and strength has evolved over the last three decades into a haven for chaos agents, stunt politics and a perpetual ideological revolution that keeps driving it to new extremes. The party’s willingness to accept the outrageous was also on display Tuesday in New York, where Trump ranted in a corridor outside a courtroom hearing his fraud trial and was slapped with a gag order for attacking a judge’s clerk on social media.
McCarthy was no moderate and did little to check the GOP’s turn away from democracy. But his defeat, at the hands of far-right rebels he complained last week want to “burn the whole place down,” is an eloquent commentary on his party. His political assassins, led by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, toppled their leader with no plan for what comes next – leaving a hugely important wing of the US government paralyzed for at least a week. The self-inflicted chaos will hamper the party’s effort to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s vulnerability, and the fresh show of incompetence and extremism could hamper the GOP’s bid to retain swing seats it needs to keep its majority next year. More importantly Tuesday’s political regicide showed that the majority in the House is inoperable and that the Republican Party is unmanageable. Until that changes, America itself will be ungovernable.
McCarthy’s fall is not without irony. It came about when he diverted from the path of extremism by seeking an accommodation with Biden to save the country from harm. In a party in which trying to break the cherished chain of peaceful transfers of presidential power, being criminally indicted four times and cozying up to some of the world’s most bloodthirsty dictators is not a disqualification (see Trump), McCarthy’s reluctant search for compromise was unpardonable.
For a while, McCarthy seemed to do everything right in appeasing the radicalism that perpetually drives the GOP to the right.
In rising to power in a job he had long craved, the Californian paid the requisite homage to Trump, reviving the disgraced ex-president’s reputation with a post-Capitol insurrection pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and working to thwart accountability for an uprising he briefly condemned. More recently, McCarthy ordered an impeachment inquiry into Biden, despite a dearth of evidence of the high crimes and misdemeanors that are the standard for considering the Constitution’s gravest sanction.
But far from ejecting Biden from office, McCarthy himself was gone in less than a month of launching that inquiry. McCarthy probably hoped to placate the fury of the right with the impeachment move, but there’s no limit to the demands of an anti-government GOP faction for which chaos is an end in itself. Before interim Republican leaders said they’d recess until next week to try to come up with a new speaker, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Rep. Tim Burchett, one of eight Republicans who sealed McCarthy’s fate on Tuesday, whether his party would have a new figurehead by nightfall. Encapsulating the GOP’s embrace of anarchy, the Tennessean replied: “I have no earthly idea, brother.”
Despite his kowtowing to the right, McCarthy eventually discovered that with power comes responsibility to something greater than party and personal glory – even for the leader of the most conservative House in history. Twice, over raising the debt limit and in averting a shutdown, he snubbed his own most extreme members who were willing to wreck the economy or to allow troops to go unpaid. The GOP radicals – a far greater bloc than the small faction that voted to unseat McCarthy – are demanding a massive government spending purge even though they have not built a nationwide majority through elections for such sweeping action.
But McCarthy signed on to a 45-day temporary spending bill to avoid a shutdown, seeking to punt his confrontation with extremists until mid-November. His Band-Aid didn’t include $6 billion Biden and the Senate wanted for Ukraine, but it still enraged hardliners who wanted to go far below spending cuts McCarthy had made with the president in an earlier agreement to raise the government’s borrowing limit to head off a debt default. McCarthy acted in the knowledge that, with Democrats holding control of the Senate and the presidency, House Republicans could not just force their wish list into law and that they’d pay a political price for a shutdown. But a Republican speaker who needs Democratic votes is on borrowed time, although no one could have know that the end would come so soon.
For the transgression of trying to fashion some, albeit erratic, governance, McCarthy joined predecessors such as GOP Speaker John Boehner and Paul Ryan in being driven out of office. All three failed to rein in a far-right faction that rejects compromise – a core concept in the US political system that is designed to promote democratic, incremental change.
“Bring it on,” McCarthy told his enemies this week as they plotted to oust him. They did.
“I never give up,” he warned. Faced with reality, he did, choosing not to run in a new election for speaker.
After he became the first speaker to be voted out of office in American history – in itself a sign of the nihilism and chaos that characterizes his party – McCarthy sought to recreate the avuncular optimism for which he was once known on Capitol Hill, but which frayed in the darkness of the current political age.
“I don’t regret standing up for choosing governance over grievance,” McCarthy said, putting a brave face on his humiliation in a valedictory news conference that capped a speakership that had always seemed to be on a short-term lease.
Two factors paved the way for his departure. First, the tiny majority voters handed House Republicans in the midterms. McCarthy could only afford to lose four votes on a party-line whip to pass a bill – meaning that he was always destined to be one of the weakest speakers in history. That no-room-for-error majority – the result, in part, of voters rebelling against extreme pro-Trump candidates who embraced his election lies – meant that even a handful of extremists could exert huge influence in the chamber. Even more detrimental to McCarthy, his zeal to be top dog in the House and second in line to the presidency meant that he made multiple concessions to right-wingers that further drained his power. They included the poison pill he was forced to swallow by his nemesis, Gaetz, on Tuesday that meant that a single lawmaker could call a vote to unseat him.
McCarthy bitterly criticized Democrats for allowing eight GOP rebels to drive him out of office by not providing sufficient votes to save him. But it was hardly a surprise that a party whose president is now facing an impeachment inquiry and whose election victory in 2020 is still being tarnished by GOP members didn’t ride to the rescue.
Privately, McCarthy might be wondering why help didn’t come from another quarter – Trump. The former president, who once referred to him as “My Kevin,” was happy for the the California Republican to act as his political shield during the last Congress when he blocked an independent commission into the mob attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters. Also as minority leader, McCarthy ensured that one of Trump’s most vehement Republican enemies, former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, was driven out of party leadership.
McCarthy’s opening an impeachment investigation last month – despite having no evidence that Biden personally profited from his son Hunter’s apparent influence peddling when his father was vice president – was at least partially an attempt to mitigate the impact of Trump’s double impeachments and four criminal trials ahead of the 2024 election. Yet the former president didn’t lift a finger to save McCarthy, once again proving that with Trump, loyalty usually flows only one way and that all of the former president’s enablers, even if they get to be speaker of the House, are expendable. That’s a warning for the next Republican to occupy McCarthy’s hot seat and helps explain why his departure is only likely to lead to more chaos in the House and in the country.
Trump, however, also understands the most fundamental lesson of the Republican Party that he has transformed in his own wild image. As his behavior becomes even more autocratic and unhinged, he is showing the only way to survive is to become more extreme. McCarthy twice diverted from that course, seeking to provide a modicum of governance in his country’s interest.
He quickly learned the truism of radical political movements everywhere that recalls how leaders often fall prey to deepening extremism: The revolution devours its children.