By the time you read this, Kevin McCarthy might be a political has-been.
It’s a crucial moment in McCarthy’s career, as it is with respect to the Republican Party’s ascending House majority. The GOP has 222 votes out of 435 in the House, a number sufficient to produce a House speaker, barely, but not enough of one to afford McCarthy the commanding authority he seeks.
For weeks, there have been five Republican House members — Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Bob Good of Virginia, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, and Matt Rosendale of Montana — who have publicly said that they won’t vote for McCarthy as speaker. Five is more than the four McCarthy could afford to bleed and still make it to the speaker’s chair. The objectors had a host of problems with McCarthy, not so much with him personally, but with the set of rules he was proposing in order to run the House.
Essentially, the McCarthy plan was to take the current set of House rules and repurpose them to serve the GOP leadership in the body. The problem is that nobody likes those rules, and nobody should.
McCarthy stood against proposals to make lots of reforms to House rules, like a single-subject rule that would bar the kinds of legislative abuses that led to the recently passed omnibus disaster that floated through the lame-duck session on Capitol Hill. With single-subject, there are no unrelated, mindless riders on legislation that have nothing to do with the point in question and serve partisan ends at the expense of proper public policy.
For Republicans, this is a good thing because most national policy questions, at least those properly postured, will be easily disposed of in a manner favorable to the conservative side. Should we fund abortions? Most people say no. Should we spend money on Yemen’s border security rather than our own? Of course not. It’s only when such questions are subsumed among other things, when legislation becomes messy and complicated as a result of greasy inside deals, that things get sticky.
Other rule reforms, like allowing members to bring amendments on the floor, were met with similar unexplainable resistance from the prospective speaker.
And McCarthy stood against the allowance of a motion to vacate the chair, a classic parliamentary option that no legislative body could legitimately abjure. Frankly, a House speaker not willing to subject himself or herself to that level of accountability is not worthy of the post. After the opposition failed to melt away, McCarthy finally relented on the vacate the chair motion, but as of Monday night, it seemed like it was too late.
On Sunday evening, McCarthy announced on a private conference call that he would give his antagonists one of their top demands: The threshold to trigger a vote ousting a speaker would shrink from half the GOP conference, as had been agreed to by a majority of the members, to five dissatisfied lawmakers. But hours later, a group of nine House conservatives issued a letter saying that’s not good enough.
That’s in addition to the five “Never Kevin” lawmakers who have already declared they’re opposing McCarthy. (Remember: He can lose only four votes if all House members cast votes Tuesday.)
But this morning, we can report that that’s not even the worst of it. We caught up Sunday with one of the GOP fence-sitters, a member who has been in the room for these negotiations. And he told us that some of these undecided members won’t support McCarthy — even if he gives them everything they want.
“The problem is people don’t trust Kevin McCarthy and a number won’t vote for him. Those are just the facts,” this lawmaker told us. “The list [of demands] that we offered was not for guaranteed support but rather the kinds of things that might move some of his detractors.”
So said Politico, and McCarthy’s plight didn’t get any better during the day Monday. The Hill reported:
McCarthy has made some late concessions and overtures to the right flank that weaken his own power and aim to address its requests to take a more aggressive stance against Democrats and the Biden administration.
But those who have declared opposition to him are not wavering, and critics who have not declared how they intend to vote are showing signs of stronger resistance to McCarthy rather than support for him.
“The fact that we are now approaching the eleventh hour is not the fault, or is not the responsibility, of his detractors. It’s his responsibility, and the blame lies with him,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who has not said how he plans to vote on the floor, told The Hill on Sunday.
Additionally, the Club for Growth, an influential conservative group, is urging opposition to a Speaker candidate who does not make other concessions — measures that McCarthy is unlikely to support.
The problem McCarthy seems to have at this point goes deeper than the rules. It’s the fact that Kevin McCarthy simply doesn’t command the respect and trust of his membership. Certainly not enough to get to 218 votes.
This would make him a tragic figure, to be sure. McCarthy has been the leader of the House Republicans since 2018, if not perhaps before. He was passed over for speaker when John Boehner was replaced seven years ago; that was when Paul Ryan vaulted past him to get the job, which has to be seen as a suspect, at best, result. If McCarthy can’t complete the sale now, it would make him the Buffalo Bills of American politics, at least to an extent.
On the other hand, he’s got nobody to blame but himself.
McCarthy shouldn’t be sweating the fact that all this time there were five public detractors to his speakership bid. There were supposed to be 240-something House members in the GOP caucus, not 222. That underperformance has lots of causes, but one main one is that there is no groundswell among the American electorate for Kevin McCarthy to replace Nancy Pelosi as the face of the House. He didn’t command the attention of the public, and as such, the moment called for him to earn the speakership by accepting what reforms his own members demanded.
As Perry said, McCarthy had that chance and he blew it. And once he blew it, and sent his lieutenants out to make threats in an attempt to secure his own power, it was always likely to go badly. This was a classic case:
“I got a very inappropriate phone call,” Luna told Steve Bannon in an interview. “Another member had called me basically to whip votes for the speaker’s race and ultimately ended up threatening me.”
Luna, who is set to represent Florida’s 13th District, said it was a female member who issued the threat.
“I let that female member know that I wasn’t going to basically be threatened,” she said. “I don’t think I need to put that person’s name out there because I think that they are probably embarrassed about doing that.”
All McCarthy had to do was reject the D.C. Swamp and its ways and accept a mandate from his own caucus, and the American people as a whole, to do things differently, and he’d have a cakewalk into power.
But he didn’t.
And the price came in a loss of personal credibility. As of this writing, it doesn’t appear that can be fixed.
That makes McCarthy a pitiable figure. But not a sympathetic one.
If he can’t complete the sale, and someone like Steve Scalise ends up becoming House speaker, that’s a win for an America that deserves better than imperial mediocrity in the People’s House.
Or at least the opportunity for one. And to McCarthy, if things go poorly, the only answer is “Life is tough, dude, and it’s tougher when you suck.”
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