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How Kevin McCarthy Planted the Seeds of Kevin McCarthy’s Demise

Remember the “young gun”? He doesn’t want you to.

Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan in 2012
Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan in 2012

It was inevitable from the beginning of the 119th Congress that Kevin McCarthy’s speakership would hang by a thread and probably be challenged frontally within his first year. And Matt Gaetz was always going to be the one to deploy it.

But the chaos in the House has its roots going back many years. And Kevin McCarthy himself helped to set this anarchic dynamic in motion.

Of course, we can pinpoint the start of anti-Washington, anti-institution, tribal politics in the rise of Newt Gingrich, starting in 1979 and culminating in his achieving the speakership following the stunning GOP victory in 1994. We know that story well.

Less well known, though, is that the playbook that Gingrich used to achieve a Republican majority was repeated a decade and a half later. In 2010, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan published a book called Young Guns, a takeoff on the 1988 movie of the same name. Cantor, of Virginia, was then the minority whip, McCarthy the chief deputy whip, and Ryan the top Republican on the House Budget Committee. Subtitled A New Generation of Conservative Leaders, the book conspicuously failed to mention the Republican leader, John Boehner. The book was a springboard for the three to fan out around the country recruiting Tea Party radicals, hoping to exploit their anger after the financial collapse in 2008-09 and subsequent backlash against Barack Obama, promising to blow up the establishment in Washington with the hopes that they could use that anger to catapult themselves into the majority—and then co-opt the new members they brought into the House.

Cantor and the others armed the candidates with talking points that included attacking any increases in the debt ceiling as adding directly to the federal debt and pledging that they would get, as a down payment on slashing government, an immediate cut, in the first hundred days, of $100 billion. McCarthy explicitly noted in the book, “Our recruits this time are like 1994. We’ve got new blood coming in here. New recruits and reinforcements to get us back to our roots as a party, back to reclaiming the American idea and stopping the careerism.”

He wrote, on the stakes, “The election this year is about much more than health care, or energy policy, or even the security of our country. Will we repeal TARP and unwind the vast amounts of government spending and mandates that distorts the innovation and free enterprise in our financial services industry, our health care system, our car companies, and our energy sector? Will we take meaningful steps to cut hundreds of billions in federal spending, so we can ratchet back the deficit spending and the ballooning $12 trillion national debt that we owe to creditors like China and the Middle East?”  

The Young Guns did spur a stunning victory in the midterms, giving Republicans a majority in the House with historic gains and a freshman class 87 strong. John Boehner became the speaker, Cantor the majority leader, McCarthy the majority whip, and Ryan the chair of the Budget Committee. But the promise made by the Young Guns to their recruits that there would an immediate and dramatic cut in federal spending was quashed as unrealistic right after the newcomers arrived by none other than Ryan, enraging the hard-liners. The expectation that once the new members came to Congress they could be co-opted did not pan out.

And the desire by Cantor to use the debt ceiling as a hostage to force Barack Obama to accept huge cuts and changes in his programs, seized upon by the Tea Party members, did not work; on the verge of default, a last-minute deal was brokered with Obama by Boehner without any help from his majority leader or whip, and to the disappointment of the Tea Party legislators.

The failure to achieve any of the promised goals claimed their first victim in Eric Cantor—defeated in a primary in 2014 by a Tea Party adherent, David Brat. Cantor resigned from Congress before the term was up. Boehner was next. He quit after less than five years in the job, blasting some of his House Republicans as legislative terrorists on his way out. McCarthy announced his candidacy for the top job, but opposition by the radicals, including the newly formed Freedom Caucus, blocked his ascension; they did not trust him to lead. Instead, Ryan was drafted for the post, while McCarthy was still able to salvage his position as majority leader. Ryan lasted just two terms, including the first two years of the Trump presidency, but bedeviled by the same radical forces demanding extreme policies that he could not deliver, he announced his retirement from Congress well before his second term was up.

Ryan was succeeded as speaker by Nancy Pelosi when Democrats captured the majority in 2018, but McCarthy was able to emerge as the Republican leader, and, in part because of his obdurate opposition to every action by Pelosi and his obeisance to Donald Trump, he was the next in line to become speaker when Republicans recaptured the majority in the 2022 election. But the seeds of his demise had been set years earlier. The same forces that claimed the other Young Guns were destined to destroy him as well.

Trump was in some ways a logical extension of the nihilistic, radical politics that emerged in the two decades before his emergence as a presidential candidate and president. But he was an accelerant, not the cause. The GOP transformation into a radical cult was there before Trump became its leader and was itself amplified by the rise of tribal media and social media, and advanced by gerrymandering and other political tools that insulated a minority in the country from the consequences of their radical statements and actions.

McCarthy played a pivotal role in the transformation. But it wasn’t just that he helped create a monster that turned around and ate him, with eight extremist members turning on him. McCarthy’s reputation as unprincipled and untrustworthy, as having few policy chops or deep beliefs in anything except himself, is what caused him to fail in his first bid to become speaker when Boehner exited, and it’s what led to 15 agonizing votes over several days to win in January. As TNR’s Timothy Noah wrote, here’s how Bill Thomas, McCarthy’s mentor and Republican predecessor representing California’s 20th congressional district, described McCarthy to The New Yorker shortly before McCarthy was elected speaker: “Kevin basically is whatever you want him to be. He lies. He’ll change the lie, if necessary. How can anyone trust his word?”

McCarthy’s behavior around January 6—calling Trump when the Capitol was overrun and demanding that he call off his shock troops, which Trump coldly declined, but then voting that the election had been stolen; calling Trump out on the House floor soon thereafter, and then, two weeks later, traveling to Mar-a-Lago to kiss Trump’s ring—infuriated Democrats and not a few Republicans. When he followed that by harshly punishing the two Republicans who stood up to Trump, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, and embracing radicals like Marjorie Taylor Greene, it demonstrated the truth of Thomas’s observation. If anything, the surprise was that only eight Republicans voted to oust him.

So it was inevitable that he would pay the price. But we will all pay a heavier price with what he and the other Young Guns helped to create: an ungovernable House dominated by a lunatic fringe that is now at the center of the GOP.