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House of Cards

Why Does Kevin McCarthy Even Want to Be Speaker?

The chaotic race to be the next speaker of the House of Representatives is a preview of things to come now that Republicans have retaken the chamber.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
McCarthy speaking to reporters in July

Ever since he succeeded Paul Ryan as the House GOP leader in 2019, Kevin McCarthy has striven to ensure that he would be the man to take the speaker’s gavel from Nancy Pelosi as soon as Republicans retook the chamber. Every action he has taken over the last four years attests to this. He has been dutifully obsequious to Donald Trump, voting against the certification of election results from a host of swing states in the aftermath of the 2020 election and, more recently, refusing to condemn Trump for dining with white nationalists and antisemites.

McCarthy also has promised to pursue a host of investigations that have emerged directly out of the right-wing fever swamps: into Hunter Biden’s laptop, Twitter’s alleged “shadow-banning” of conservatives, and his own chamber’s bipartisan investigation into the January 6, 2021, attempted insurrection. Taking things even further, McCarthy has suggested that he’s open to helping his party’s hard-liners hold the debt ceiling hostage in an attempt to force draconian cuts to social welfare programs such as Medicare and Social Security. His speakership will, functionally, be little different from how the hard-liners in the Freedom Caucus would like it to be—which is to say it will be deranged and unpopular.

Alas, the midterm elections, having not ended in the red bloodbath of the GOP’s dreams, will instead bring in a slim majority in the next Congress, giving McCarthy neither the numerical advantages he craved nor the clout he thought a big wave election would confer upon him. And now, in order to become the speaker of the House, he will need the approval of the deranged and unpopular members of his party. Which means that gavel will be hard to hold. No matter the outcome, McCarthy just can’t win.

That the House Republican caucus’s upcoming leadership decisions have already been chaotic is not particularly newsworthy. Nor is the fact that the party’s extremists have used the occasion as an opportunity to take hostages and make demands. Republican efforts to do anything at this juncture are inevitably chaotic; the party’s right fringe, ascendent for so long at this point that it’s really its new mainstream, only sees politics as a vehicle for furthering its own anti-democratic agenda. To a large extent, the race to become the next speaker simply speaks to the increasingly unhinged set of incentives that govern Republican politics. It’s another test of purity: who can get furthest to the right and who can produce the most insane set of demands for investigations and cuts.

For McCarthy, this process is also a preview of coming attractions, should he ascend to the speakership: His caucus is ungovernable and will insist on doing destructive, often crazy things to appeal to its base, its donors, and its media organs.

How is McCarthy equipped for the road ahead? He is not a well-known ideologue or policy wonk like his Republican predecessor, Paul Ryan. Nor is he a master of arm-twisting and political arts, both dark and light, like his Democratic predecessor, Nancy Pelosi. McCarthy is simply a man who understands that he is supposed to be an extremely ambitious politician and that means wanting to be speaker. He’s worked tirelessly to earn a job that isn’t particularly good anymore. He may soon come to regret having made that effort, if he hasn’t already.

In a more normal political period, in a more normal political party, McCarthy would have had this sewn up by now. But if the party’s hard-liners were typically kept in check by Ryan and the previous Republican House speaker, John Boehner, they are bucking at their restraints now, keeping McCarthy from easily securing the 218 votes needed for him to become speaker. Last week, Freedom Caucus member Andy Biggs announced his own bid to replace McCarthy. Biggs and six other colleagues also released a set of demands that they would need met before they’d support voting for the California Republican. It’s not clear that McCarthy has the chops to navigate the political terrain through which his GOP predecessors stumbled successfully to keep a Republican institutionalist as the face of the caucus.

What the agitated right flank wants goes beyond extortion; they would essentially disempower McCarthy almost completely and hand control over to the House’s most extreme members. Their demands include the right for any member to force a vote on removing the speaker; for members to be given at least 72 hours between the release of a final bill’s text and a vote on the floor; an increase of the number of Freedom Caucus members on the House Rules Committee; and, naturally, a commitment not to raise the debt ceiling without an agreement to balance the budget in the next decade–something that would inevitably result in steep cuts to federal programs like Social Security and Medicare.

McCarthy has already signaled a willingness to entertain debt ceiling brinkmanship, which could have catastrophic economic consequences for the country. He has similarly acquiesced and expressed enthusiasm for another of the hostage takers’ demands: an increase in politically motivated investigations into the Biden administration. On Sunday, he vowed to subpoena 51 former intelligence officials who said that the Hunter Biden laptop story was likely to be Russian disinformation.

The result of all of this may well spell long-term political disaster for Republicans as they further alienate themselves from Normie America. Instead of making the case that they can govern, they will spend the next two years launching increasingly incoherent investigations into whatever boutique outrage or spectral threat is leading Tucker Carlson’s show on any given day, and consistently threatening to gut some of the country’s most popular programs. This will all be quite bad for both McCarthy’s party and the country, but he knows better to say so, lest his ambitious plan to become speaker, and thus an indispensable man at last, fails to come to fruition. But he’s also getting a taste of what that speakership will be like: Hard-liners will consistently be threatening him and taking hostages, all the while threatening to remove him from office should he fail to govern from the nether reaches of the far right. It’s a long way for one man to stoop, for so little conquering.