The overthrow began, on Monday evening, with a fittingly juvenile exchange of public taunts. “Bring it on,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy posted, at 7:31 P.M. “Just did,” Representative Matt Gaetz replied. Gaetz is the latest in a series of increasingly confrontational Republican members of Congress who have, during the past dozen years, made the job of Speaker in a G.O.P.-controlled Congress one of the capital’s most impossible positions. (See: Boehner, John; Ryan, Paul.) This, however, turned out not to be just another episode of the House Republicans’ rolling soap opera of dysfunction but an assault by a punk from Florida serious enough to go down in the history books. Gaetz, an acolyte of Donald Trump, followed through on months of threats on Tuesday, using the weapon that McCarthy himself had provided back in January to win the speakership in the first place, when he agreed to a rule allowing a single member to force a vote on a motion to vacate the chair. This was akin to giving Gaetz a loaded gun; it was inevitable that he would pull the trigger. The last time there was a vote on a motion to vacate was in 1910; Joseph Cannon survived and went on to become one of Congress’s legendary figures, an iron-fisted ruler whose name today adorns one of the House’s three main office buildings. No one, it’s safe to conjecture, will be naming any buildings for Kevin McCarthy.
Before the vote on Tuesday afternoon, it seemed possible that McCarthy could win outright, or lose but survive after more rounds of voting failed to produce a viable alternative. But no one had any idea what would happen if he lost and bowed out. Much would hinge on what the Democrats decided: Would they bail out the Speaker, who, with a mere five-seat House majority and more than five Republicans prepared to vote against him, suddenly needed their votes to remain in power? The answer, Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said in a letter that he released shortly before the floor drama began, was no. This was a “Republican Civil War” that Republicans themselves would have to resolve. Other Democrats were even more adamant about rejecting an agreement with McCarthy, whom they reviled not only for years of toadying up to Trump but for breaking his word in recent months to President Biden. How, after all, do you compromise with a man whom Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Democrat from Virginia, called “likely the most unprincipled person to ever be Speaker of the House”? Then again, this was Washington, so the possibility of a deal with Democrats could not be entirely ruled out.
The rebellion, such as it was, consisted of Gaetz and his small coterie of allies ranting about McCarthy’s sins. Much of their immediate anger concerned McCarthy’s decision, on Saturday, to avert a government shutdown, by passing a forty-five-day continuing resolution that would temporarily keep the U.S. open for business while Congress worked to pass the rest of its annual spending bills. Such last-minute maneuvers are commonplace on Capitol Hill and hardly a reason to take the unprecedented step of removing a Speaker. McCarthy’s capital sin, according to Gaetz, was working with Democrats, which gave the proceedings an especially absurd flair, given that Gaetz would be relying on Democratic votes to oust McCarthy and was himself making this point from the Democratic side of the aisle, having been blocked by McCarthy’s allies from speaking from any of the Republican-controlled microphones. As for the Democrats, they stayed silent for the entirety of the debate, adhering to the wise political rule that when your opponents are busy shooting themselves in the foot, it’s best to give them room to do it.
In the end, it took only around two hours and a mere eight members of the Republican conference to render McCarthy the shortest-serving Speaker of the House since 1876, when Michael Kerr died of tuberculosis after only nine months in office. By 7:30 P.M., McCarthy was holding a press conference that sounded a lot like a eulogy for himself—long on self-praise, short on self-examination. As for what comes next, an election for a new Speaker is currently scheduled for next Wednesday, but, the truth is, no one really knows what will happen. The U.S. House has ceased to function. Republicans have an ungovernable majority and a small minority bent on obstruction. Gaetz and company are rebels without a real cause, except that of chaos itself.
The political-obituary writers will not be as kind to McCarthy as he was to himself. The fifty-fifth Speaker of the House turned out to be one of the weakest America has ever had, a man whose overriding ambition seemed merely to have been obtaining the job itself and whose willingness to make a bad deal to get it proved to be his predictable undoing.
By nature an accommodationist, McCarthy was brought down by the surging Trumpist forces within his caucus that he had sought for years to placate. His humiliation, in that sense, is the Republican Party’s writ large—the humiliation of bowing to Trump again and again, only to be met with more and more outrageous demands. McCarthy is modern proof that appeasement doesn’t work.
The record of his suck-uppery to Trump and the Trumpists is too long to recount in full. Perhaps it’s enough to recall that Trump nicknamed him “my Kevin,” and that, during Trump’s Presidency, McCarthy was reported to have sent over to the White House a jar of Trump’s favorite Starbursts, carefully culled of all but his favorite red and pink candies. It was McCarthy’s egregious behavior in the aftermath of the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, however, that really proved him to be a hopeless stooge.
McCarthy was reportedly enraged by the events of the day, calling Trump in a fury and blaming him for the rampage. He continued to criticize Trump, in public and private, during the following days—“I’ve had it with this guy,” he huffed, on tape, as it turned out, to fellow Republican leaders. And yet he voted, along with a large majority of his conference, to go along with Trump’s campaign of lies about nonexistent voter fraud and refused to certify Biden’s election. Within weeks, McCarthy was flying to Mar-a-Lago to pose with the defeated ex-President—a visual that spoke to the Republican Party’s decision not to exorcise Trump once and for all but to stick with him.
And yet, for all that McCarthy did for Trump, it was no surprise that Trump declined to step in and do anything to save McCarthy’s tenuous speakership. On the contrary, Trump publicly cheered on those like Gaetz, who were pushing for a government shutdown over McCarthy’s frantic efforts to stop it. As the coup unfolded, Gaetz gleefully told reporters that he had spoken with the ex-President.
The damage that McCarthy did to the House in his vain attempts to stay in power will not be measured only in abstractions. His concessions were all too real. Take, for example, the flip-flop he did last month in opening an impeachment inquiry into Biden, based on years of unproven allegations that Biden might have benefitted from the dubious foreign business dealings of his son Hunter. This had long been one of the main demands of Trump and his most vocal supporters in the House. But McCarthy had promised not to take such a step without a vote of the full House, and then, when he did not have the votes, did so unilaterally anyway. The inquiry will not just magically disappear now that McCarthy is gone. On the contrary, one of its main proponents—the Ohio Republican Jim Jordan—on Wednesday became the first declared candidate to replace McCarthy as Speaker.
The same is true of McCarthy’s dangerous brinkmanship with funding for the war in Ukraine. He claims to be a strong supporter of Ukraine’s, but faced with rising opposition to continued financial support for Ukraine within his conference—again, fuelled by Trump—he stripped out the Ukraine dollars that were in the continuing resolution proposed by the Senate to avert the shutdown. He also refused to act on a supplemental appropriation of twenty-four billion dollars for Ukraine that the Biden Administration sent to Congress in August. Is a new Speaker really going to want to confront the rebels right away by going to bat for Ukraine?
It’s all part of the McCarthy mess. And don’t believe anyone who says it will be easy to clean up.
McCarthy himself, in his valedictory press conference, was asked what advice he would have for a new Speaker. “Change the rules,” he said, smiling. If only it were that simple. ♦