You could say that Kevin McCarthy wants to be loved. It’s impossible to hold this against him without context: We do all sorts of things in the pursuit of love, some of which take us out of the containers we once identified as ourselves. Love, in so many ways, puts more of us into the world. It causes more of us to exist; if it causes us to violate ourselves, to make ourselves smaller in the naked pursuit of approval, then the language of love is not applicable.
The language of love is utterly inapplicable to Kevin McCarthy and his predicament.
For the last five days, I must admit a small speck of worry as I’ve watched the case of Kevin McCarthy, the undisputed leader of the House’s Republican delegation since 2019. He needed exactly half plus one of the House of Representatives to vote for him — the simplest of majorities. Thanks to the House’s Freedom Caucus, perhaps the farthest-right contingent of any kind in either chamber of the U.S. Congress, McCarthy didn’t get what he needed on his first try. Or his second. Or his third. Or eleven of the votes that followed. It took until the fifteenth ballot, completed in the wee hours of Saturday morning, for McCarthy to become Speaker of the House.
McCarthy offered things to the Freedom Caucus that I didn’t even know he could, beginning with what I can only describe as the power to default on the national debt and crash the international economy. He offered to let the Caucus select members to sit on congressional committees and subcommittees, independent of his — or anyone else’s — oversight. He offered the Caucus its own committee, dedicated to the harassment of various intelligence agencies over their supposed hostility to conservative causes, complete with the ability to hold televised hearings and equalling the budget and staffing of the Capitol riot committee. And let’s not be sanguine about who, exactly, will staff these committees: McCarthy offered to restore Marjorie Taylor Greene, who lost her assignments in 2021 for spouting antisemitic bile online, to her former status and then some. When none of these pledges managed to put him over the top — or even above the Democrats’ candidate for Speaker, Hakeem Jeffries — McCarthy announced that any member of the House could call a vote to remove him at any time they pleased.
Even then, it took a dramatic late-night scrum on the House floor and a dramatic face-to-face between one of McCarthy’s allies, Mike Rogers of Alabama, and one of his foes, Matt Gaetz of Florida, before the Republican leader was finally in power. (No one was entirely sure what Rogers was planning to do when he entered the scrum, so another member of the House grabbed his face and pulled it away. The rest of Rogers’ body followed, as bodies often do.)
None of this is an attempt to describe the low-class, high drama, stratospheric comedy proceedings that unfolded between the start of the House’s voting and McCarthy’s ascent into the chair. It’s also not an attempt to capture just how humiliating the new speaker’s week was; there might not be any words to describe that. My point is that McCarthy’s woes had precious little to do with the negotiations, because they had precious little to do with anything that we’re supposed to admit happens in politics.
Kevin McCarthy entered Congress in 2007, as one of the Republican “Young Guns” dedicated to reforming the nation’s social programs in the image of the austerity kings who sat atop conservative politics at the time. These principles proved slightly useless to the politics of the moment, the time of endless war, botched disaster response, and an economic calamity the likes of which had not been seen since the 1930s. So, in the 2010s, McCarthy morphed into then-Speaker John Boehner’s right hand man, a deputy who proved far too close to the head of the snake to succeed when Boehner packed up in 2015. Conservatives thought Boehner was too friendly with Obama’s White House when they wanted a battle royale. McCarthy, in turn, was too friendly with Boehner. The speakership went to Paul Ryan, a friend of McCarthy’s and arguably the most conservative Republican to lead the House since the Gilded Age.
Then, something came up that was too much for even Ryan. Donald Trump rose to the presidency while ensconced in a cloud of bigotry and scandal, taking the rest of the Party of Lincoln with him. Suddenly, holding power became a matter of subserving Trump, and Ryan — who never wanted the job anyway — retired before Republicans’ drubbing in the 2018 midterms. McCarthy, suddenly the party’s top dog in the House, didn’t retire; he rebranded instead, enough so that Trump took to calling him “my Kevin” at campaign rallies. Even when McCarthy wavered, namely the night he blamed Trump for the Capitol riot that the former president had convened and encouraged that morning, all it took was an apology and a renewed fealty to restore the gentleman from Bakersfield to the realm of the beloved.
McCarthy has embraced different philosophies during his career, oscillating between economic reform, careful governance, and the politics of war. But his real commitment, with all due respect, has been to power and popularity. Kevin McCarthy, simply put, wants to be loved, primarily by people he thinks can give him influence in return.
It was then that the problem began to present itself.
Nineteen distinct associates of the House Freedom Caucus and two other Republicans in Congress opposed McCarthy’s election, explicitly or implicitly (via the shadowy “present” vote) at least once during the first eleven rounds of voting in the House. They continued to oppose him throughout all kinds of policy concessions — “balanced budget” amendments that would force vast amputations to federal spending, concurrent shrinkages of the IRS, and a, shall we say, relaxation of ethics enforcement in Congress, for example. Only when he agreed to ease the processes of going over his head and defenestrating him from the office did McCarthy finally manage to win them over. Simply put, the “holdouts,” as they were called in the media, didn’t have a problem with anything McCarthy promised; they had, and have, a problem with McCarthy.
Sometimes I’ll hear a song make its way across my playlist from Brandi Carlile, centerpiece of multiple glowing write-ups in this corner of the Internet. It’s called “Hold Out Your Hand,” and it concerns the devil, as great songs often do. But Carlile splits her first verse with a word that fits last week like a glove: “I’ve been everybody’s friend,” she sings, “everybody’s friend, everybody’s friend.” But if you’re everybody’s friend, can you truly ever be anybody’s friend?
Roughly half the House Freedom Caucus has decided that Kevin McCarthy is no friend of theirs. They don’t disagree with him on principles, because they have yet to see him hold to any on a consistent basis. It’s impossible for them to reject him on the basis of his prior actions, because those actions vacillate based on who he perceives as his benefactors. They can’t give him what he craves most — their love, at least professionally — because they’ve never seen him love anything, professionally, besides the chair he now inhabits. Humans, earthbound and limited, are doomed to fall in love with religion, sports, politics, and science; Kevin McCarthy fell in love with a gavel. This was not, through their eyes, a conversation about conservatism; it couldn’t be, since conservatives were set to seize more power than they’d had since the Civil War. It was a conversation about Kevin, and how he couldn’t be trusted to be seized by anything but power.
McCarthy is in this position, partially, because Republicans underperformed in November’s congressional elections. We all thought the GOP would have a much larger majority in the House than the 222 seats they actually control, given the sharp decline in now-president Joe Biden’s public approval and the seeming obscurity of debates about Donald Trump, the Republicans, and authoritarianism. (Democrats netted 213 seats, but one of their members passed away mere weeks later, leaving them with 212.) When the results came in, commentators guessed that the new speaker would be led around by the proverbial nose at the behest of the Republicans’ extremist contingent. We had no idea; it’s possible we still have no idea. McCarthy’s lifetime of being everybody’s friend didn’t end with his rise to power. If anything, it necessitates his indiscriminate amiability more than ever. Intuitively, no great leader tries to please everyone, or even all of their friends, since leadership almost always demands difficult decisions. Kevin McCarthy is not a great leader, nor has he ever expressed any desire to be. What he is, is the Speaker of the House, a job he’s wanted for years and a job he lowered himself in order to get.
But the shocking spectacle of, say, watching members try to fight each other on the floor of the House over McCarthy’s repeated failure, will pale in comparison to how his tenure will end if it is driven only by self-preservation. Even though he’s de-fanged his own office, McCarthy will still have to make hard choices, most notably on whether to work with Democrats to salvage America’s line of credit if the Freedom Caucus refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Those choices will dissatisfy members of his party, and removal votes are sure to follow. If Democrats vote unanimously to cast him out, the number of concurrent Republicans need only exceed five to end McCarthy’s speakership. Simply put, McCarthy surrendered everything for a powerless, insecure office that will exist almost exclusively as a punching bag for a political realm badly in need of such a bag.
When the House finally elected him on its fifteenth try, perhaps thanks in part to a phone call from Trump, McCarthy led a rousing celebration into the night. Hakeem Jeffries, the first Black person to lead any party in Congress, congratulated McCarthy and roused the House Democrats from the complacency of seeing the other side belly-flop so forcefully. (Jeffries, a fountain of competence if not a wellspring of charisma, cycled through the entire alphabet while listing his party’s priorities. It would have been impressive at 1 p.m., but Jeffries did it at 1 a.m.)
Traditionally, the election of a speaker is followed by a vote on the set of rules that will govern the House for the next two years. But the rules McCarthy plans to propose are rife with treats and special treatment for the far-right, enough so that moderate Republicans were announcing their intention to reject it before he’d even won the speakership. So, instead of risking such a spectacle, the new Speaker moved to suspend operations until Monday.
He just doesn’t, as far as we know, have the votes.