No single moment can truly encapsulate these last two chaotic, absurd, boring days of American politics. Kevin McCarthy’s new year has begun with him losing six votes in increasingly humiliating fashion as he seeks the one job he has always wanted, which just happens to be the worst in the United States: speaker of the House. But one snapshot plucked from two days of pure, undistilled futility comes close. On Wednesday afternoon, Florida Representative Kat Commack took the floor to nominate McCarthy for a sixth, doomed time and delivered the kind of speech that only a Florida representative could. “They want us divided, they want us to fight each other. That much is being made clear by the popcorn and blankets and alcohol that’s coming over there,” she said, indicating the Democratic members in the chamber.
The insinuation that Democrats were drinking on the job—though honestly, who could blame them?—drew jeers and demands that it be stricken from the record. McCarthy waved them aside. There was nothing he could do: “There are no rules,” he shrugged. He was right. The House, without a speaker, can’t adopt any rules, and so there are scenes of rarely seen chaos everywhere: Commack’s remarks have to stay on the record, and no one can be sworn in. Meanwhile, C-SPAN’s cameramen, who are normally stuck having to broadcast a static shot of the chamber, are trying out Soderbergh-worthy angles. Who knows, maybe members of both parties have snuck a plastic bag full of Jameson nips onto the floor. (Again, who could blame them?)
But the general lawlessness has extended far beyond the floor. McCarthy knew this wouldn’t be easy. Becoming the speaker of the House is hard enough in a functional political party; it’s extremely difficult in one as rowdy and ungovernable as the current GOP caucus and nigh on impossible when the margin of error is only four votes. Still, McCarthy, who is unremarkable in so many ways, was seemingly built for the task—and has dutifully spent his four years as minority leader preparing to one day take the gavel. To his credit, despite his well-documented lack of policy chops, McCarthy did read his party well: He knew that the path to power lay only in winning over his party’s right flank, and he has spent the last several years slavishly cozying up to it.
This he did, by nearly all metrics, nearly flawlessly. He voted against certifying the 2020 election. He’s promised his members that they’d get to launch a series of frivolous investigations into members of Joe Biden’s administration and family. He’s acceded to a series of escalating demands from his party’s far right that would more or less render him a mere ventriloquist’s dummy on day one. With Donald Trump’s endorsement in his pocket, he prepared for a game of chicken with his opponents, assuming he could either wait them out or win them over with carrots and sticks—promises of near veto power for legislation; threats of stripping committee assignments from holdouts.
McCarthy is no one’s idea of Sam Rayburn or Tip O’Neill or, for that matter, Nancy Pelosi, but his rationale was impeccable, even if the actions it guided were inexpertly deployed. This Republican Party, however, has long ceased to act rationally or on principle or even on any coherent ideological plane, but McCarthy understood and accommodated it. He planned to be the furthest-right speaker of the House in history; he would empower the Freedom Caucus; he would launch investigations; he would own the libs. What else could he have done to win over the far right?
What McCarthy failed to consider was how hard it would be for him to meet the most critical demands of the hard-liners: for him to not be Kevin McCarthy. Those who oppose his nomination have realized that they can take him down—and, in doing so, get all that they want and more—and so that’s what they are going to do, if only to show the world that they can.
Some of the reporting pegs the antipathy of the most rightward members of the House to a general sense of mistrust: They see McCarthy as an ambitious striver and social climber, not really one of their own—a true believer. But as Josh Marshall wrote, this tidy explanation ignores a larger context: Those who are seeking to flex their newfound majority power in the House Republican caucus don’t want government to function. They don’t care that these stunts hurt their party or the country. These stunts are the whole point of being in government.
In some ways, McCarthy is cursed simply for having hung around for a long time. The sole surviving Young Gun, he has occupied positions of prominence within House leadership for more than a decade. This alone is enough to doom you with a large segment of the Republican Party. McCarthy is hardly a RINO. He has embraced Donald Trump and MAGA and dutifully followed the party as it has made hard-right turn after hard-right turn. And yet he is, simply by virtue of having been in Congress for a while, now a member of the hated “Establishment.” McCarthy has had to, on occasion, do things that help the country function, even in a diminished capacity. But mostly he has just become a symbol of an establishment that many in the party—and the entire party’s media—blame for its failure to take total cultural and political power.
It’s not yet certain who will win this game of chicken; there are scenarios in which McCarthy may yet become speaker. For now, we have a pure stalemate. McCarthy has just about run out of threats and bribes. His opponents have made it clear that they really have one demand—someone else. That person may very well be another lawmaker in the established pecking order, such as Steve Scalise. They might be someone even more reckless or unprepared for the job, like Jim Jordan or Andy Biggs. While a handful of people have ended up receiving votes as the ballot rounds repeat, the revolutionaries haven’t made a firm commitment to anyone in particular. Not that firm commitments matter in the end: The Republican Party has no governing agenda other than launching increasingly opaque investigations into, say, why Gutfeld! didn’t get nominated for any Emmys.
McCarthy has said he has no intention of giving up seeking the gavel. Having sought the job for so long, he is in too deep. Now he’s trapped in the belly of a humiliation engine with the very far-right fringe that he did everything, in the name of becoming speaker, to empower. This is a story about his sad desperation. But the saga is still revealing in that it showcases the utter nihilism of the far right that now owns the levers of the Republican Party. McCarthy’s fatal mistake was his failure to recognize that the right doesn’t care about what he can offer them, because they have no interest in actually using it for anything. They just want his head, and the thrill of going on television to boast about the decapitation. It’s just vibes, all the way down.