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Kevin McCarthy Got What He Deserved

The House speaker’s short reign is over. He only has himself to blame.

Kevin McCarthy purses his lips
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

If there’s one thing to say about Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as speaker of the House by a 216–210 vote, it’s this: This week’s chaos was inevitable from the moment he made untenable concessions to the far-right members of his caucus to loosely grab hold of the gavel in the first place. If there’s a second thing to say about it, it’s that he had it coming. There can be no mistake about it. Kevin McCarthy deserves this. He brought it all upon himself.

For McCarthy, power—or at least the semblance of it, which is all he ever really held—was dependent on a series of deals that sapped it at its root. To attain the speakership, McCarthy gave the most ungovernable members of his caucus a veto over everything the Republican majority aspired to do, something they have gleefully employed to the detriment of nearly everything. He appointed members of the House Freedom Caucus to the enormously influential House Rules Committee, which can rewrite bills and, by definition, set the rules of the House. He made it easier for the House to block spending increases.

And, crucially—as this moment illuminates—he made it much, much easier to oust the speaker: Under the deal he cut to assume the position in January, only one Republican needed to call a vote to oust him. Previously, motions to remove the speaker could only be brought by the leader of either party: Now any yahoo could do it, and Matt Gaetz, every bit that yahoo, gleefully pulled the trigger on Monday. Given the House GOP’s slim majority, he needed only five Republicans to join him if the Democratic caucus held firm in withholding their support, which Democrats promptly did.

McCarthy surely knew this was an impossible situation, to be made to bend over backward to far-right Republicans armed with an easily pressed eject button. It essentially inverted the normal dynamic, giving a handful of rank-and-file members control over the House, leaving the speaker disempowered. McCarthy acquiesced to additional demands on a number of occasions, knowing full well the consequences for not playing along would mean losing his job. This situation was particularly untenable because the bomb-throwers McCarthy enabled were in the minority of their own party: Their demands for the government lacked the support of the full caucus and were therefore almost always doomed to fail. The deal McCarthy made was one that made basic governance impossible.

There are plenty of reasons to savor this moment, even if you’re not exactly a Matt Gaetz fanboy. McCarthy has spent his months in office striving to protect Donald Trump while denigrating and diminishing the vital work of the January 6 committee. He authorized a bogus impeachment push against President Biden, despite there being no evidence of any wrongdoing whatsoever. On only two occasions did he break from the far right: once to cut a deal with Biden to raise the debt limit (which he quickly reneged on) and again late last month on a short-term deal to keep the government open. It was the latter defection that cost him his job. The irony, as Norm Ornstein pointed out on Twitter, is that McCarthy is being pushed out for being an institutionalist—for compromising to keep the government open—when few have done more to trash the institution of the House of Representatives.

Given his slim majority, holding onto the speakership would almost certainly require Democratic votes. But the unprecedented series of concessions that McCarthy made to the far right all but foreclosed that possibility. Democrats have absolutely no incentive to save his skin, knowing full well that he would, for instance, continue a comical impeachment inquiry as soon as they did. In an early test of his leadership, Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries convinced his caucus to hold the line, understanding that his party would derive no benefit from saving McCarthy’s skin. Even if they had cut a deal, there was no reason to believe that Republicans would honor it. It is, moreover, not entirely plausible that such a deal could have worked, in any case: Dropping the impeachment inquiry, one possible concession, would have just sparked another revolt in the GOP caucus. McCarthy painted himself into a corner the day he ascended to the speakership, and these are the fruits of that arrangement. Honestly, it’s shocking that he managed to hold on for as long as he did.

In any case, the idea that Democrats should bail out McCarthy because his successor might be even more extreme is preposterous, though some are already suggesting it. For one thing, the majority elects its own leader—why Democrats would boost any current House Republican is absurd, given everything that has transpired since the GOP retook the chamber earlier this year. But McCarthy has repeatedly dealt in bad faith and has spent the final days of his speakership pushing a ridiculous impeachment inquiry. Republican Tom Cole begged Democrats to do something—anything!—on the House floor on Wednesday, warning, “Think long and hard before you plunge us into chaos.” But the House GOP has been plunged in chaos for months. Democrats giving McCarthy a lifeline would do nothing to change that.

It’s not the least bit surprising to see McCarthy hoist by his own petard, having sown the seeds of his destruction from the outset of his tenure. From minute one, this trajectory was laid in—the only open question was how long it would take the extremists in McCarthy’s midst to gin up a reason to take him out. This speakership has proceeded along predictable lines, with McCarthy alienating everyone he needed to save himself: Democrats and the handful of Republicans he made his ill-fated grand bargain with last January. McCarthy may yet regain the gavel. He may cut another deal to become speaker again. But it’s not clear how that would end any differently from this. For now, this is a fitting celebration of the ignoble reign of a neutered House speaker; it is a pathetic moment and a deserved one.