What we learned from the McCarthy imbroglio
With those wild four days now over, it’s worth taking stock of what all this showed and where we go from here.
It’s not the end of McCarthy’s headaches; it’s the beginning
The good news for McCarthy is that he now has the position he’s been striving for dating back to last decade. The bad news is that he will now assume a diminished speakership (thanks in part to his own concessions) leading a very fractured and unwieldy conference, in a way that might make him regret ever taking the job.
And you only need to look to the final hours of this week’s events late Friday and early Saturday for proof.
McCarthy expressed confidence that he had the votes heading into Friday night. Asked how he was so sure, he said, “Because I counted.” But he wound up actually failing on the 14th ballot, when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) voted “present” and left McCarthy at exactly 50 percent of the vote. This led to a near-physical altercation in which Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) confronted Gaetz and was restrained.
Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) remarked of the scene: “People shouldn’t be drinking, especially when you’re a redneck, on the House floor.” He added of Rogers, “I would drop him like a bag of dirt.”
Regardless of the alleged role of alcohol, the dynamics that led to this scene and these words aren’t going anywhere.
When John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) took over as speaker in 2011, he later recalled in his memoir, he quickly realized that he had effectively become “mayor” of “Crazytown.”
Well, Crazytown now puts significantly more levers of power in the hands of its most extreme denizens, thanks to the second-smallest GOP majority in the past 90 years and the major concessions McCarthy chose to grant his holdouts during negotiations.
They’ll have significant say on the hugely important House Rules Committee. They reportedly will be able to demand budget cuts in order to raise the debt ceiling (which heightens the odds of a debt default). And just one member can move to oust McCarthy if they don’t like what he’s doing — what’s known as a “motion to vacate the chair.” That’s a situation which contributed to Boehner’s resignation and which former speaker Paul D. Ryan’s team compared to a “weapon pointed at [the speaker] all the time.”
The Post’s Paul Kane had a great piece on Thursday running down all the reasons McCarthy might have set himself up for failure. And indeed, the fact that he was giving away so much was cause for some consternation among his allies.
But McCarthy wanted the job — badly. Now we get to see what he can do with what’s left of it, and while fending off a contingent of holdouts who seem bent on making his tenure torturous.
He said early Saturday that he was “1,000 percent” certain he wouldn’t be booted from the job over the next two years, but getting voted out is not the only possible negative outcome.
The next big hurdle is passing a rule package, which leadership hoped to do early Saturday but wound up postponing until Monday. One McCarthy backer signaled he’ll vote against it and others have reportedly expressed concerns about the concessions it contains, raising the prospect of yet another fraught battle at the very outset of McCarthy’s speakership.
It was posturing, but it worked
It’s often true in politics that situations can appear unresolvable, until they’re resolved. And the speaker election was certainly one of those.
A prohibitive number of Republicans had asserted that they would oppose McCarthy, who could afford to lose only four GOP votes if everyone cast a ballot for another candidate. The question was whether they were posturing or whether they would hold strong. It turned out to be the former.
We understand that politicians often say things they might or might not believe. But when their earlier statements later prove wrong, it’s always worth taking stock of that (lest we take them at face value in the future). And this week’s standoff featured plenty of promises that ultimately fell by the wayside:
- Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) assured that McCarthy would never become speaker — including as recently as Friday. Gaetz also dismissed the idea that he wound vote “present” — “Never voted present in my life. Don’t plan to start now” — but he and five others’ present votes wound up handing McCarthy the speakership by lowering the threshold he needed to cross.
- Reps. Matthew M. Rosendale (R-Mont.) and fellow McCarthy holdout Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) also said they wouldn’t vote present, before they ultimately did.
- Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) called himself a “hard no” and said, “I’m not going to support Kevin McCarthy,” but did so starting on the 12th ballot. (Gaetz also rejected the idea that Norman and Rosendale would ever flip for McCarthy, saying, “Those people don’t know Ralph Norman and Matthew M. Rosendale.”)
- McCarthy had indicated that the motion-to-vacate-the-chair change was a non-starter, before giving the Freedom Caucus what it wanted.
Of course, nobody in politics ever wants to admit their hand isn’t as strong as they’d like it to be. But the week’s events all reinforce that in such unpredictable situations, every proclamation should be viewed with the necessary skepticism.
Just because a conflict appears unreconcilable doesn’t mean it is, especially when various incentives push in favor of a resolution. This has happened over and over again when Congress confronts deadlines on must-pass legislation, often waiting until the very last minute (or blowing the deadline but eventually getting its act together).
What this week also showed is that politicians who would draw things out have plenty of incentive to do so, particularly when their opponent is over a barrel. Gaetz repeatedly remarked overnight that he was struggling for things to ask forbecause McCarthy had given away so much — comments surely intended to twist the knife.
Those concessions might have been enough to save McCarthy’s speakership bid. But it sure sends a message to others who might try something similar in the future.
Time heals wounds — somewhat
It was a little more than seven years ago that McCarthy unexpectedly bowed out of the running to succeed Boehner as House speaker, despite being next in line. The reasons for that withdrawal were complicated — including a gaffe in which McCarthy had suggested the House’s Benghazi investigation was a deft political win — but it basically boiled down to the fact that the House Freedom Caucus didn’t like him and didn’t trust him, and the math apparently didn’t work.
Now McCarthy has won the speakership, though the GOP holds a much smaller majority and he could afford to lose significantly fewer Freedom Caucus votes.
What has changed since then? Certainly, McCarthy has proved willing to do what it takes to appeal to the hard right, even when it is embarrassing and transparent. That includes when he showed up suspiciously late on a list of House Republicans seeking to challenge the 2020 election results — an effort he had previously declined to publicly support. It also includes when he went to Donald Trump, hat in hand, shortly after blaming the former president for what happened on Jan. 6, 2021.
He also made an effort to mend fences with the co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who stood by his side throughout this fight — a move that arguably proved very important. While the effort to thwart McCarthy included about 20 members at the outset, it lacked a real leader. If the likes of Jordan rather than Gaetz had headed up the opposition, it might have been a very different ballgame.
But beyond that, there’s the question of why McCarthy was acceptable now when he apparently wasn’t then. Perhaps if he had soldiered through in 2015, the votes would have turned up eventually. Perhaps, in the intervening years, the Freedom Caucus has simply worn down the establishment so much that McCarthy’s concessions were more acceptable today than they would have been in 2015. (Plus, there’s the fact that McCarthy could scarcely bow out twice and harbor any hopes of becoming speaker — which perhaps lent him extra motivation to press on this time.)
But it’s also true that sometimes you need to wait for enough people to forget why they didn’t like you. Part of McCarthy’s calculus in bowing out early in 2015 was surely that it would allow him another shot down the road.
He finally got that shot, and after plenty of drama he pieced together a speakership — or, at least, a semblance of one."