Kevin McCarthy’s Predicament Is a Warning

His detractors are here to play games with American power.

Kevin McCarthy's picture seen in an elephant-shaped frame with a circle on the bottom-left corner and an X on the top-right
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

Kevin McCarthy’s humiliation, and that of Donald Trump alongside him, offers a tall draft of schadenfreude. At the end of that, though, the nation is left with an empty glass and a bitter taste.

For many reasons, McCarthy is unfit for the speakership: He undermined the 2020 election, he is dishonest, he is (as we see) unable to marshal his caucus. But his defectors aren’t really interested in a speaker who is able to keep the House organized or functional. Their ability to hold Congress hostage is a flashing red light for the country.

One can draw some very general conclusions about the anti-McCarthy clique: Its members are mostly far to the right, and they are mostly very pro-Trump, notwithstanding their disagreement on this issue with Trump, who supports McCarthy. All but two of them are election deniers, The Washington Post noted.

But the dispute in place here is not fundamentally ideological, as Jonathan Chait writes, or at least not in traditional terms. This isn’t a simple question of conservative versus moderate. If it were, Marjorie Taylor Greene wouldn’t be one of McCarthy’s most fiery defenders in this battle. Rather, the divide is about whether the House should be able to accomplish anything at all, and whether the GOP caucus will be bound by political reality. Greene’s presence on the McCarthy side indicates that she has a more realistic theory of governance and power, which says a lot about her counterparts here.

Today, in nominating McCarthy on the fourth round of balloting, Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin said, “There are things I want that I know are impossible to get done in this Congress,” but argued that McCarthy was best-positioned to achieve what was possible. But the rebels start from a premise that nothing is impossible if they’re simply dedicated enough to the cause. They believe they can wrestle the Senate and the White House into submission through force of will. The changes they seek might effectively prevent the House from doing anything, but they don’t see that as a problem; stasis and refusal are tools of hard-core conservatism in their hands.

McCarthy is not an ideologue. He is, at heart, a transactional politician who thrives on relationships. When the rebels rise in the chamber and aver that their disagreement with McCarthy is not personal, they can be both sincere and at the same time spurning him in sharply personal terms, because that is what he is. He has already tried to win them over by offering concessions on some demands, including the number of representatives needed for a motion to vacate, which could force a vote on ejecting the speaker at any time. (It would also gut ethics investigations.) These concessions would make McCarthy a weak speaker if he were able to win the chair, which it appears he cannot. Watching McCarthy try to bargain with them has been darkly humorous, because dealing is in McCarthy’s blood but they are fundamentally anti-deal, whether with Democrats or with him. That is, in fact, their core precept.

The overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus sided with McCarthy, at least at the start of this process. But this is not to say that the rest of the GOP is innocent of the rebels’ kind of thinking. Since 2011, congressional Republicans as a whole have slumped toward the belief that simply sticking to their guns is enough. Much like Donald Trump, the rebels are both continuous with recent trends in the Republican Party but also a break from them, in terms of their zealotry.

No example is more clear than the debt ceiling, an odd, vestigial limit on the nation’s borrowing power. It doesn’t actually affect spending; Congress decides what to spend and then has to pay for that (or borrow), regardless of where the debt limit is set. Refusing to borrow to pay that debt would simply put the nation in default. But Republicans—including McCarthy—have repeatedly voted against raising the debt ceiling anyway, claiming that that would somehow constrain spending, or tried to use it as a backdoor method to enact massive spending cuts.

The debt ceiling is one reason the outcome of this speaker vote matters: The new Congress will have to raise the debt limit or else produce a default sometime in the next few months. McCarthy has been unable to satisfy either the rebels, who want no surrender, or his moderates, who want no part of an economic catastrophe. “Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling?” Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina, one rebel, said today. “That’s a nonnegotiable item.”

But whatever McCarthy’s particular weaknesses, any speaker will face the same quandary. That might be true even of legislators with better conservative bona fides, such as current House Majority Whip Steve Scalise; at least one McCarthy dissident said he wouldn’t vote for anyone who’d been in leadership for the past decade. Whether McCarthy or someone else, the next speaker will not only need 218 votes; he or she will also need a miracle.