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Kevin McCarthy Has Won His Own Race to the Bottom

The Republicans are putting on a truly powerful show in political dysfunction.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy returns to his office following a day of votes for the new Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol on January 4, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

KKevin McCarthy has spent the past days impaled on these spikes of his own creation. On Tuesday, he lost three votes for House speaker in quick succession, before his allies succeeded in adjourning the House for the rest of the day. That evening, Donald Trump tried to rescue McCarthy’s candidacy by urging his hard-right followers to come around and support McCarthy as speaker. But Trump seems, at this point, to have lost control of his own narrative. His hard-right followers, having tasted Kevin McCarthy’s blood, are unwilling to now stand down even when their Great Leader instructs them to do so.

On Wednesday, McCarthy’s allies, knowing that he was being set up for another day of bruising humiliation, again attempted to adjourn the House within moments of it opening, but they didn’t have the votes. And so, the humiliating roll calls continued. Shortly afterward, McCarthy lost the fourth vote for House speaker. In each of those votes, Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries (New York) secured more votes than did the putative incoming speaker. And despite McCarthy’s promise to duke this out for however long it takes, in votes three and four, the number of Congress members opposing his bid to be speaker actually increased as compared to the first two votes. That’s hardly the sort of momentum a successful candidate needs.

A few minutes later, McCarthy lost the fifth vote. And then the sixth.

Kevin McCarthy is reaping what he sowed. It is, I have to admit, an extremely entertaining denouement to a shockingly mediocre career.

McCarthy wanted power so very, very desperately that, over the years, he frittered away all of his principles. He did so, very publicly, with a startling lack of shame or dignity. McCarthy made his peace with Trump’s movement even after it launched an attempted coup to overturn the 2020 election results; and rather than sanction QAnon-allied members such as Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado), he promised them plum committee assignments and gave them a dais to amplify their toxic messages.

After years of opportunistically empowering the burn-it-all-down far right wing of the Republican Party, and after years of pandering to those who believe that any constructive dialogue with one’s political opponents is somehow politically treasonous, McCarthy is now finding that people like showboat Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) aren’t really reliable bedfellows. Whodathunkit?!, as Jerry Seinfeld might have said.

There’s something rather satisfying in reading on conservative mouthpiece Fox News that Gaetz opined that everyone in the GOP caucus knows that “Kevin does not actually believe in anything.” It might be the first honest words out of Gaetz’s mouth since he was elected to Congress in 2016. There is something equally perversely enjoyable in watching Greene, who has spent the last few years lobbing bombs from the far right of the political spectrum, pivot and defend McCarthy — not because she is ideologically simpatico with him, but because she knows that he is unprincipled enough to promise her pretty much anything she wants in order to secure her vote. Greene’s gain is also Gaetz’s win, proving him correct in his contempt for the right honorable mediocrity from Bakersfield, California.

McCarthy wheedled and pleaded and begged with his fractious caucus behind closed doors, finally shouting at them, “I’ve earned this job,” only to be hit with an expletive-laden heckling barrage from Boebert, who reportedly responded to McCarthy’s dignity-shredding pleas by reportedly crying out “Bullshit.”

Again, it pains me to agree with a charlatan such as Boebert about anything at all, but she does have a point here. McCarthy’s understanding of how one “earns” a job that would place him second in line for the presidency, after Vice President Kamala Harris, has nothing to do with standing on principle, or building up a strong record of legislative accomplishments, or defending democracy in the face of escalating attacks on the basic infrastructure of the U.S. political system from Trump and his allies, or drawing red lines for what is or what isn’t acceptable political behavior from his extremist “Freedom Caucus.” McCarthy, who initially called Trump out for his role in the January 6 insurrection, rapidly made his peace with Number 45 — paying homage to the man at Mar-a-Lago just weeks later — and has spent the past two years attempting to rewrite history so as to exculpate Trump and rehabilitate him enough to remain a viable national political candidate. If that doesn’t merit a barnyard epithet, I don’t know what does.

On one level, these endless roll calls, all leading to the inexorable result that McCarthy is more than a dozen votes shy of what he needs to become the next speaker, are about as interesting as watching the Christmas log burn on TV; on another level, I could watch this slow-motion McCarthy train wreck all day, all week, heck — if these California rain storms keep rolling in and making life in the great outdoors a soggy mess — all month from the comfort of my living room couch. After all, what’s better entertainment on a gloomy, rainy day, than grabbing a coffee and some snack food and sitting back to glory in the imagery of an out-of-control GOP tearing itself to pieces in front of the world?

The Republicans are putting on a truly powerful show in political dysfunction. For the first time in a century, the majority party in Congress has been unable to rally around its leading candidate for speaker. Having twisted himself in moral knots to avoid antagonizing the hard right, McCarthy now finds that hard right empowered rather than appeased, its members eager to turn him into a political piñata. With each vote that he loses, McCarthy looks more brittle, his jaw that much more clenched. At some point, surely, maybe at the 10th vote, maybe at the 20th, he’ll burst, as does any piñata, and a blizzard of low-grade candies will fall forth from his pummeled midriff.

Even if McCarthy is, somehow, eventually elected speaker after this episode of all-too-public self-flagellation, his ability to be anything other than a figurehead for a party in hock to extremists who would rather stalemate government than actually do the hard work of governance, has been entirely denuded.

There was, to be sure, never really an expectation that the incoming GOP majority would be able to govern effectively. There was, at best, the assumption that they would pass extremist, symbolic bills that would routinely go down to defeat in the Senate, and would be able to muster the numbers to episodically make it difficult for Biden and the Senate to keep the government fully funded. McCarthy made clear that he was more interested in holding a series of investigations into the Biden family, into the Department of Justice, into the goings-on at the U.S. border, than he was in crafting a legislative package that would actually better the lives of ordinary Americans. Yet even that low bar seems to be almost comically unattainable now for the hapless McCarthy and his allies.

After years in which McCarthy has condoned a race to the political bottom, there is, surely, some poetic justice in watching him, at what should have been the climactic moment of his long, opportunistic trek to the speakership, now hoisted by his own petard.

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