No Tears for Kevin McCarthy

It would be better for everyone if his candidacy for House speaker failed.

Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy surrounded by a gaggle of reporters.
Al Drago / Bloomberg / Getty

The defeat of Kevin McCarthy in his bid for the speakership of the House would be good for Congress. The defeat of Kevin McCarthy would be good for the United States. It might even be good for his own Republican Party.

Because the people attempting to inflict that defeat upon McCarthy include some of the most nihilistic and destructive characters in U.S. politics, McCarthy is collecting misplaced sympathy from people who want a more responsible Congress. But the House will function better under another speaker than it would under McCarthy—even if that other speaker is much more of an ideological extremist than McCarthy himself.

McCarthy is not in political trouble for the reasons he deserves to be in political trouble. Justice is seldom served so exactly. But he does deserve to be in trouble, so justice must be satisfied with the trouble that he’s in.

McCarthy deserves to be in trouble because he refused to protect the institution he now seeks to lead. After the January 6, 2021, insurrection, he told fellow Republicans that he would urge President Donald Trump to resign immediately. When that vow became public, McCarthy denied he had ever made it, until a contemporaneous audio recording exposed his lie.

“I’ve had it with this guy,” McCarthy said after the January 6 attack—then voted in the impeachment proceedings to protect this guy. Eight days after Trump left office, McCarthy flew to Florida for a photo opportunity with the ex-president who had sent a mob to rampage through the Capitol and harm, abduct, or do worse to McCarthy’s own colleagues. Trump then released a statement boasting that he and McCarthy would be working closely together into the future, a statement McCarthy never contradicted.

McCarthy then enabled and supported a purge of every House Republican who had acted with the integrity that he himself had failed to muster. He endorsed the primary opponent to Liz Cheney. He stripped committee assignments from Republicans who served on the committee to investigate the Capitol riot he had once condemned and now condoned.

For weeks after January 6, McCarthy denied that he’d telephoned Trump that day to blame him for the attack. When then–Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler exposed his denials as false, McCarthy brutally rebuked her.

“You should have come to me! Why did you go to the press? This is no way to thank me!”

“What did you want me to do? Lie?”

Well, yes, obviously. That’s what McCarthy did.

Herrera Beutler then lost the nomination in a primary battle against one of the most reactionary Republicans of the 2022-midterms slate—who then proceeded to lose a seat in rural Washington State to a Democratic newcomer.

Sadly, the 20 or so Republicans voting against McCarthy are not exacting retribution for his cravenness toward Trump. It’s not easy to discern what exactly they are exacting retribution for. They do not seem to have noteworthy policy disagreements with McCarthy. Their rebellions seem aimed instead at enhancing their own power within the caucus. They are hostage-takers whose chief demand is to keep holding their hostage forever.

Distaste for the anti-McCarthy faction, however, should not mislead anyone into supporting McCarthy. Very specifically, distaste for the anti-McCarthy faction should not mislead House Democrats into rescuing McCarthy. McCarthy has been frantically signaling for Democratic rescue. Speakers are elected by a majority of the representatives. If enough Democrats were to absent themselves, McCarthy could be elected speaker by the roughly 200 Republicans who do back him. But what’s the affirmative case for such rescue?

If McCarthy becomes speaker now, he will be a weak and precarious one—constantly at the mercy over the next two years of those 20-odd fringe Republicans voting against him this week. McCarthy will appease and accommodate them. When John Boehner was speaker, he dealt with the irreconcilable fringe by building majorities across the aisle. The 2015 budget deal that ended that year’s debt-ceiling crisis passed the House with only 174 Republican votes, augmented by 95 Democratic votes to reach the necessary 218 majority. But if McCarthy survives his present leadership test, he’ll do so only by committing never to repeat Boehner’s example. That commitment will have teeth, too, because McCarthy has reportedly agreed to allow any single disaffected Republican to call for a vote of confidence in his speakership if he displeases them. He has proposed to escape his immediate hostage crisis by handing himself over as a hostage forever.

That’s the beginning of the reason it would be better if he failed to win the speakership. If McCarthy somehow ekes out a win, he will be broken from the beginning—an officeholder who holds only the office, not the power of the office.

A speaker of the House who does not speak for a majority of the House is a waste of time and space. He speaks for nobody, he acts for nobody, and there’s no point in negotiating with him. Seeking a decision from him will be like seeking a decision from the president of Lebanon, when everybody knows that it’s actually Hezbollah who controls the guns and money, and is the power in the land. To have to deal directly with Hezbollah is unlovely, but more practical and probably safer, with less room for misunderstanding along the way.

It would be better to have a speaker who can deliver than one who cannot, even if that speaker is more ideological than McCarthy. An ideologue can say “Yes” and have it mean something; a speaker who does not command a majority cannot.

A McCarthy speakership is a formula for parliamentary paralysis, for rule by a minority faction within the majority caucus, for crisis after crisis after crisis. Rejection of McCarthy by an agitated minority may paradoxically make it easier for the rest of the system to function with the post-McCarthy Republican majority.

By electing a more ideological speaker, Republicans may inadvertently shape a less ideological House majority. Imagine what this House will look like after a McCarthy defeat. Twenty Republican House members will have exposed 200 colleagues to national ridicule for reasons that even those 20 insurgents cannot coherently explain. Are the 200 now likely to follow the 20 into a fight to default on the U.S. debt? To slash American aid to Ukraine and hand the advantage to Russian President Vladimir Putin? To try to impeach President Joe Biden over some QAnon fantasy? To devote the next Congress to waging war on the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies? Or will they more likely say, “That’s enough from you—you have embarrassed us one time too many”?

The coverage of this speaker election has tended to present the spectacle as a failure and a hazard. But maybe what we’re seeing is a system working for the better. An unworthy man could be about to lose a job he lacks the talent and character to do. The radical crew who aimed to exclude the unworthy man imagine that they will be empowered by their rebellion. Instead, their destructive action will only have discredited them with their peers.

New House Republican leadership must be found. Although that leadership may be more ideologically extreme than McCarthy, it may also learn from this week’s debacle to be more careful about launching crazy adventures—and thus be more able to negotiate and deliver deals.

Ditch McCarthy. He won’t be missed.