Behind the Humiliation of Kevin McCarthy
Robin Kelly, the Democratic representative of Illinois’s Second District, had the right idea when she headed into the House chamber early Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve got my popcorn ready,” she joked on Twitter, where she also posted a picture of herself just outside the Speaker’s lobby. No wonder Kelly and other Democrats were giddy. Not in
Robin Kelly, the Democratic representative of Illinois’s Second District, had the right idea when she headed into the House chamber early Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve got my popcorn ready,” she joked on Twitter, where she also posted a picture of herself just outside the Speaker’s lobby. No wonder Kelly and other Democrats were giddy. Not in a hundred years had it been such fun to be in the new minority party.
When the voting to choose the next Speaker began, it turned out to be even more humiliating than expected for Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who had been confidently predicting a victory despite steadfast opposition from some of the ultra wingnuts in the G.O.P. conference. Until Monday, the most embarrassing moment of McCarthy’s career was when, three weeks after January 6th, he hightailed it down to Mar-a-Lago to pay homage to the disgraced instigator of a failed autogolpe. To a slave to ambition like McCarthy, though, that exercise in public self-abasement probably paled beside seeing Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat, get nine votes more than he did—even though Republicans had won a narrow majority in the new House.
Before the first ballot, the expectation was that four or five G.O.P. dissidents would vote against McCarthy. When the votes were cast, just after midday, nineteen did. When a second vote was held, all the anti-McCarthy Republicans stood their ground. In a coördinated stunt instigated by Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman, they voted for the Ohio firebrand Jim Jordan, who had just delivered a speech urging the Party’s members to unite behind McCarthy, saying, “I like his fight, I like his tenacity.”
It says pretty much everything about today’s House G.O.P. that Jordan, a Freedom Caucus co-founder who made his bones on the right by spending two years targeting Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi attack, and who then emerged as one of Donald Trump’s most ardent defenders, is now a key figure in the Party establishment. Having secured the position he wants as chair of the Judiciary Committee, the Ohioan was evidently content to support McCarthy for Speaker rather than pursue the top office himself. He must have thought that it would be more rewarding to spend the next two years going after the F.B.I., the Justice Department, and Hunter Biden than trying to deal with the likes of Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Andy Biggs—the outgoing head of the Freedom Caucus, who stood against McCarthy in the first ballot on Monday.
If that was Jordan’s calculus, it was a sensible one. At a conference of the Republican House members on Monday morning, McCarthy appealed for unity, and one of his supporters, Representative Mike Rogers, of Alabama, reportedly threatened to revoke committee assignments from anyone who voted against the Californian. Rather than quelling the rebellion, however, the meeting appears to have further stoked it. “This is bullshit,” Boebert was heard to mutter. Another of the dissidents, the Texan Chip Roy, subsequently told Fox News that Rogers was “emblematic of the problem.” Explaining his opposition to McCarthy, Roy said, “We want a check against the swamp. . . . This is about changing this town.”
The irony is that McCarthy had already prostrated himself before the ultras, offering them a series of rule changes, one of which would allow just five representatives to force a vote on ousting the Speaker. Unsurprisingly, these entreaties failed. It is the essence of a revolution, especially one staged for social media and Fox News, that the revolutionaries cannot be bought off by members of the corrupt establishment. Gaetz, in his speech nominating Jordan, described McCarthy as an inveterate swamp creature who “had sold shares of himself for a decade” to get the job of Speaker.
Actually, that may have been one of the least inaccurate utterances that Gaetz has made. But, of course, it didn’t tell the full story of what’s happened inside the Republican Party, or of how people like him and Boebert assumed their current positions. Over the past few decades, the G.O.P. has gone from being a ruthless and disciplined party of limited government and trickle-down economics to a party of anti-government protest to, now, a party of performative verbiage—in which the likes of Gaetz and Boebert (and, of course, Trump) are far more interested in boosting their follower count, raising money, and appearing on “The Sean Hannity Show” or Newsmax than they are in governance.
This gradual substitution of theatric self-promotion for serious politics has been ongoing ever since Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, and Tuesday’s events merely represented its logical culmination: a newly elected House Republican majority reduced to a rabble incapable of performing the basic function of selecting a leader. In a third round, held late Monday afternoon, Jordan got twenty Republican votes, one more than before, and McCarthy got two hundred and two, one less. G.O.P. leaders then asked for an adjournment, and their wish was granted. Even as McCarthy told reporters that he had no intention of dropping out, it wasn’t evident what good a delay would do. It also wasn’t clear whether Kelly, the gleeful Illinois Democrat, had run out of popcorn. She may well need more when the voting resumes. ♦