Kevin McCarthy is not yet, and still may never be, the Speaker of the House. But there he was on the House floor again at noon on Thursday, in his third day of purgatory, smiling with the look of a man who has no other choice but to smile, even as he’s dying inside. “We’re having really good progress in conversations,” he insisted to reporters.
If there were any questions remaining about how badly McCarthy wanted power, they had been answered by Thursday morning, when it became clear that he was willing to give almost any concession to the twenty House Freedom Caucus Republicans blocking him from the Speakership. Progress, as McCarthy defined it, looked an awful lot like appeasement. Most damaging was the deal he offered on Wednesday night—after failing, over six ballots and two days, to persuade even one of the defectors to back off—to allow a single member to call for a vote to replace the Speaker. In a chamber with four hundred and thirty-five representatives, many of them far more willing than their predecessors to blow it up, such a provision would be a recipe for anarchy. The problem for McCarthy was that even that sop did not seem to be enough for his critics. The problem for the country was that, whoever ultimately gets the job, McCarthy’s capitulation in the name of his own craven ambition will have made the House all but ungovernable.
Thursday’s edition of the follies began when John James, a newly elected Black Republican from Michigan, stood to nominate the hapless would-be Speaker. With the G.O.P. so divided against itself as to create a once-in-a-century void in the House, James was the seventh Republican to have drawn that job since the House convened at noon on Tuesday to undertake what is generally the ceremonial function of reconstituting itself after an election. This time, the biennial ritual has given way to full-blown chaos. Still, James insisted, it wasn’t so bad, at least in an all-time-worst-in-history sense, pointing out that “the issues that divide us today are much less severe than they were in 1856,” when it took two months and a hundred and thirty-three ballots to choose a Speaker amid violent division over such fundamental issues as slavery and states’ rights. It was, I suppose, modestly reassuring. His case for McCarthy came down to this: he’s the guy who got us to the majority, no matter how small it is, and you don’t fire a guy who’s winning. “Y’all, we need to learn how to win,” James lectured his G.O.P. colleagues, though, in a sign of how screwed up things were, he was lecturing a body that he was not yet even officially a member of, since the members cannot be sworn in until there is a Speaker.
Winning this was not. By the time the seventh ballot was over, at 1:40 P.M., McCarthy had made no progress, and there remained twenty Republicans opposing him and one voting present. Brian Mast of Florida then rose to begin the dreary process all over again. McCarthy was still sitting there, still smiling.
Mast proceeded to make a remarkable argument on McCarthy’s behalf: that he would, unlike many of his recent predecessors, be much more willing to cave in to the Freedom Caucus’s endless demands. “He’s not Paul Ryan,” Mast promised, referring to the last Republican Speaker, a formerly rising G.O.P. star who decided not to seek reëlection in 2018 rather than face another term of wrangling with his own party’s fractious rebels and their friend and patron in the White House, Donald Trump. “He’s not Mitch McConnell,” Mast promised, referring to the Senate Minority Leader, who has not only publicly broken with Trump but even spent this Wednesday in his home state of Kentucky for a photo op with Democratic President Joe Biden, to tout a bipartisan infrastructure deal much hated by the House faction now wielding its obstructive power. Finally, Mast promised, “He’s not John Boehner,” the original enemy of the Freedom Caucus, who quit the Speakership and resigned his House seat in 2015 rather than give in to their demands. McCarthy would not be like those Republican leaders, Mast insisted. “He’s different.” Talk about damning with faint praise. He might as well have said: vote for the guy without a spine.
Not that it helped. After Mast, Andy Biggs, the former Freedom Caucus chair and one of the most vocal of the House’s “Never Kevins,” rose from his seat once again to oppose McCarthy. “If you want to make change, you have to make change,” Biggs said, with the circular illogic that has led Republicans to this politically catastrophic impasse. And so it went to an eighth ballot, with results no different from the seventh. The last time the House failed to select a Speaker on the first ballot, in 1923, it took nine rounds of voting for Speaker Frederick Gillett to win reëlection. At least he won. This time, McCarthy offered even more concessions to the renegades, but with less success. When the ninth ballot was done, McCarthy had lost again. The only difference was that a few of his twenty opponents had switched their protest votes, from one obscure backbencher, Byron Donalds of Florida, to another, Kevin Hern of Oklahoma. Another round of voting immediately began and was just as swiftly ended with no change. Round Eleven soon followed. Members began speculating about when it all would end. Friday? Monday? Would the long-rumored deal with some faction of the insurgents soon emerge? They had no idea.
So the stalemate continues. In the dry words of the House clerk, read out now ten times and counting at the end of each failed ballot, “a Speaker has not been elected.” The long, slow humiliation of Kevin McCarthy—a “self-geld,” as the Never Trump commentator Charlie Sykes memorably put it—grinds on. The week’s mayhem has called into question both McCarthy’s character and his judgment. We have all been rubberneckers at the smashup on Capitol Hill. But after watching every ugly minute of it, the question I keep coming back to is this: Why would anyone want this job?
We don’t need to know the final outcome to know what this mess already portends: a gridlocked House in thrall to a minority of publicity-addled fanatics and abetted by a majority of Republican accommodationists who, like McCarthy himself, have made deal after deal with the extremists without ever satisfying them. The result is a House where even the most basic functions of government, like passing annual spending bills or raising the debt ceiling, will be difficult to conduct. The fiasco has shown once again that the G.O.P. right now is a fractured and leaderless party, possessing power in our two-party system that it is incapable of wielding responsibly.
“We cannot let the terrorists win,” Dan Crenshaw, a particularly loud McCarthy supporter from Texas, said, as the fight was joined. But the truth is that they already have.
In a fitting sign of how Republicans have turned their dysfunction into a political way of life, the Speaker vote is now assured to extend into Friday, the second anniversary of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob seeking to overturn the 2020 election results. Many of the same members who aided Trump in that would-be coup are leading this disaster as well. And this time they are refusing even to heed Trump, who has publicly, if not overly enthusiastically, endorsed McCarthy. The insurrection is dead; long live the insurrection. So why is Kevin McCarthy still smiling? ♦