It’s a paradox worthy of a Zen koan: How does one gain leadership of a party that’s ideologically opposed to governing? The one animating principle of Kevin McCarthy’s immaculately unprincipled career has been the pursuit of maximal congressional power—but power in today’s Trumpified House GOP caucus is almost entirely a function of self-dramatizing grievance. In a political conclave made up of Twitter main characters, there’s no room for an aspiring content moderator—even one as cheerfully invertebrate as McCarthy.
The sheer unsustainability of the GOP’s ascension to power was on excruciating display in the past 48 hours, as the House of Representatives failed to designate a speaker to inaugurate a new session for the first time in a century; five successive roll call votes failed to land McCarthy in his coveted leadership spot. As the chaos unspooled, far-fetched scenarios began to seem more plausible. Hard-right Florida Representative Mathew Gaetz reportedly declared that he’d be fine with Democratic minority leader Hakeem Jeffries as speaker. Q-Anon-supporting Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene went after Gaetz and other “Never Kevin” incendiaries in the name of… pragmatism? Jim Jordan, the Trumpier-than-thou Ohio representative whom McCarthy had successfully romanced with the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, started the day by delivering McCarthy’s nominating speech; he ended it as the speaker candidate endorsed by the Never Kevin faction. The House GOP caucus never had a sure grasp on consensual reality to begin with, but they opened the second session of the 118th Congress somewhere well beyond the far side of the looking-glass.
As McCarthy saw his shot at the House speakership recede, and as more and more traction built up behind the party’s hard-right faction clustered around the Freedom Caucus, he had to be regretting the many substantive and procedural concessions he had granted in advance to the ignoble opposition: pledges to disarm the House Ethics committee, to torpedo individual spending measures and fire government officials; stiffer language about pursuing Inspector Javert–style inquiries into the infamies contained on Hunter Biden’s laptop, counter-investigations into the select committee on the January 6 insurrection, and—oh, why not?—probes of the CIA and the FBI for ongoing, unspecified affronts to the MAGA faithful. In a stirring 11th-hour capitulation, McCarthy also gave in to a Freedom Caucus demand to permit spot votes on his own prospective speakership—a guarantee of permanent ineffectualness at best, and a sword-of-Damocles death warrant at worst.
McCarthy’s litany of obsequiousness was all for naught: The right flank of the House Republican caucus wasn’t having his leadership bid because… well, they just weren’t, that’s all. “Look, this is not the Tea Party,” former Republican strategist Tim Miller says of McCarthy’s opposition. “The Tea Party might have been performative, but at least they had an ethos. There was at least a policy objective to what the Tea Party was doing. Here, there’s no overarching policy objective—they’re just motivated by clicks and TV hits. It’s a party of charlatans, and they’re increasingly gaining power. I mean, you just have to look at these districts and the people who ran and won in 2018, 2020, and 2022, saying they wanted to be more like Trump.” Now, in the opening act of the 2023 Congress, “they just want to have a performative fight” over McCarthy’s speakership, Miller adds. “So even if Kevin cuts another deal with them to impeach [Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro] Majorkas, that won’t be enough. Nothing is enough.”
“This is the culmination of years of intraparty factional battle, starting at least with the rise of the Freedom Caucus in 2015,” says congressional scholar Matthew Green, who chairs the political science department at Catholic University. “The battle for the speaker is a proxy battle that’s been taking shape between the bulk of the Republican caucus on the one hand and the Freedom Caucus on the other. Now we’re seeing it play out on the floor of the House.” The way to understand the fight, Green says, is “the problem of the governing Republicans versus the grievance Republicans.”
Indeed, in the perverse logic of the conservative movement’s flight from governance, McCarthy has largely demonstrated his unsuitability to lead the right by wanting the gig so overtly. “Part of the problem is that for at least some of these lawmakers it appears to be personal,” Green says. “One of the digs on McCarthy from the conservative movement is that he only cares about power, not policy. They’re not convinced that McCarthy is on board with the conservative agenda.”
Of course, the agenda on the right doesn’t have a great deal to do with policy-making either, as McCarthy’s own half-hearted effort to marshal the party behind his hand-waving 2022 “Commitment to America” program made painfully clear. Still, the trick in the transactional-power world of Washington is not to seem excessively needy, and McCarthy exudes neediness out of every pore. When Gaetz was putting forward Jordan’s candidacy, Green notes,”he said that Jordan is modest to a fault, and that he’s not willing to sell shares of himself,” in a far-from-subtle callout to McCarthy’s campaign for the post. “There’s a balancing act to be struck,” Green says. “You want more power, but you don’t want to wear it on your sleeve.”
It’s true that McCarthy assiduously wooed potential dissenters in advance—getting the initial support of Jordan himself and reviving the congressional career of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had previously been stripped of her committee assignments for bigoted and conspiratorial outbursts such as the claim that a string of forest fires in California had been ignited by “Jewish space lasers.” But as Green notes, “those were individual members, not efforts to address the broader, deeper concerns of the caucus. You contrast this with what Pelosi did in 2018. She was in real trouble then, when more Democrats said they’d oppose her. But she was very systematic in targeting members most likely to flip and making deals with them.”
While McCarthy does appear to have gone into deal-cutting overdrive at the outset of negotiations, he has only the scorn of Matt Gaetz to show for all his bowing and scraping at the moment of decision. “McCarthy was making all these concessions but still had Republicans saying they wouldn’t vote for him,” Green says. “The whole point of a concession is getting something in return.”
Then again, it could well be that the only fate worse for McCarthy than a failed speakership would be a successful one. “The key point, even if somehow he cobbles together the vote, he is completely castrated,” Miller says. “He’s even weaker than Boehner was at the end. The first time he needs to get Democratic votes to get a budget passed or a bill through, he’s done. It’s the barbarians in charge.”