High-level politics is fundamentally about dealmaking. You can’t succeed as anything more than a back-bencher if you aren’t willing to make a deal with almost anyone on almost anything. In Faust, a deal with the devil is fatal; on Capitol Hill, it’s how you survive.
But those “almosts” are essential, a lesson Kevin McCarthy is demonstrating this week. More politically disastrous than a deal with the devil, the Californian made a deal with Donald Trump, and now he’s learning how little it was worth. McCarthy decided early on to stay as close to the former president as possible, but even Trump’s steadfast public support couldn’t prevent embarrassment in today’s vote for speaker of the House. Nearly everyone who has pinned their political hopes on Trump has, for one reason or another, had it backfire on them. McCarthy’s case is just a vivid example.
After three ballots, McCarthy has failed to win enough votes to become speaker of the House, a lifelong ambition. It’s the first time since 1923 that the House has taken multiple rounds to choose its leader, but a small faction of hard-line Republicans has refused to back McCarthy, depriving him of the majority he needs. Early this evening, the House adjourned until noon tomorrow, with the outcome still up in the air. The most likely ends are either that McCarthy withdraws or that he makes concessions to conservatives that will secure their votes but render his control of the caucus and House weak and probably short-lived.
McCarthy is not known for having any particularly strong political ideology beyond a general conservatism, but his affability and energy helped him rise in the Republican conference. In fall 2015, when Speaker John Boehner resigned, McCarthy was majority leader and seemed set to succeed him but abruptly withdrew from the race when it became clear that he didn’t have enough support. Instead, Paul Ryan became speaker.
In May 2016, as Trump gradually mowed down presidential-primary rivals, any Republican officeholder could find two main reasons for backing Trump. The first was political: Whatever else was going on, he was the presumptive Republican nominee, and no one was going to win conservative policy goals with a Democratic president. The second was, if less admirable, more straightforward: Hitching one’s wagon to Trump might help advance one’s personal fortunes. McCarthy decided to back Trump. He wasn’t among the very first prominent Republicans to do so, but he was early in the wave, and before Ryan.
And McCarthy stuck with it. When The Washington Post in October 2016 published a tape of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women, many Republicans (including Ryan) flinched, but not McCarthy. Once Trump won his surprise victory, McCarthy’s loyalty seemed to pay off. Conservative policy victories in Congress were few and far between—to Ryan’s frustration—but McCarthy reaped the personal gains. The president referred to him as “my Kevin,” and even if detractors saw this as a sign of sycophancy, McCarthy was happy to enjoy the status that proximity to Trump gave him.
McCarthy broke from Trump only once, briefly, after the January 6 insurrection, when he privately called Trump’s behavior unacceptable and told members he’d ask the president to resign. (He had reason to be angry at Trump, who had flippantly dismissed his pleas for help that day, saying, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”) But he quickly moved to mend the breach, flying to Mar-a-Lago in late January 2021 to prostrate himself. He also tried to deny his private remarks until reporters produced tapes.
Over the next two years, he remained close to Trump, and courted the most hard-core Trump supporters. Faced with the challenge of how to handle Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new representative with a slate of appalling statements and passionate conservative support, McCarthy chose to only lightly castigate and then align with Greene. Those moves were cowardly and often self-debasing, but they were effective. Greene became a key ally, and Trump, though famous for rewarding loyalty with betrayal, remained supportive. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, McCarthy looked like a lock to finally take the gavel and lead an expected large new GOP majority.
Yet McCarthy’s speaker bid turned into a mess, because Trump’s magic turned out not to be the help he thought it would be. First, the forces that Trump marshaled were not really his own but borrowed; his genius was harnessing a sentiment already in the GOP that others were not willing to embrace, which meant he had limited power to command MAGA representatives who opposed McCarthy. Second, backlash against Trumpism helped make the new GOP majority thin and precarious, rather than producing a robust one where McCarthy might have won the speakership easily, despite defections on the far right. Third, Trump is weaker than he once was, in part because of the underwhelming midterm results and in part because of his legal travails.
McCarthy’s struggles today are yet another example of how casting in with Trump tends to leave candidates casting around for a lifeline. Trump can certainly break his enemies: If McCarthy had opposed Trump, it must be said, he would never have been in position to lose the speaker vote. But Trump’s ability to make his allies is limited, and not merely because he’s only ever really looking out for himself. Republicans who have flocked to Trump for aggrandizement have repeatedly suffered for it, whether Jeff Sessions (unceremoniously fired) or Mike Pence (hunted by a mob). Some, like McCarthy’s former lieutenant Liz Cheney, have thought better of their alliance and been punished for that too. The fate of others, such as the 2024 hopefuls Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley, is yet to be written, but McCarthy stands as a warning.