Discover more from Slow Boring
Fifteen thoughts on Kevin McCarthy's downfall
It's funny, mostly. Also sad. But funny.
It’s hard not to feel some schadenfreude over the downfall of Kevin McCarthy, who’s never seemed like a particularly thoughtful, honorable, or sympathetic guy. But it is worth remembering that what precipitated this, in a proximately sense, was McCarthy’s decision to not do the pointless government shutdown that Matt Gaetz wanted him to do.
Or did Gaetz want him to do a shutdown? It seems like (as Liam Donovan has been saying the whole time) this is what Gaetz wanted: a pretext to claim McCarthy betrayed the true conservative cause so that he could bring him down.
But what do Gaetz and his fellow rebels actually want? I’m inclined to call it a sociopathic lust for power, but I don’t actually understand how this course of action leads to him amassing power. I’m using the underpants gnome meme because that’s a meme, but I’m remined in some ways even more of Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now.
I just reject the Republican establishmentarian spin that the real issue here is Democrats’ refusal to bail McCarthy out. My advice to Democrats was to not drive a hard bargain here — be a cheap date, want to get to yes. But if McCarthy wants Democrats to do something for him, he has to do something in return. I understand he felt that he couldn’t offer any concessions for risk of further increasing the size of the rebellion, but that’s just another way of saying that the GOP caucus is dysfunctional. And people need to know that. Joe Biden is old, but he runs a competent professional administration. Republicans are running a shit show.
Importantly, the shit show is bigger than the handful of rebels. The rebels are absolutely part of it, but given that, the mainstream wing of the party has no choice but the cauterize the wound and make a deal with Democrats to keep McCarthy in the Speaker’s chair. That means mainstream Republicans need to suck it up and offer Democrats something. They don’t need to like sucking it up, but that is the position the rebels put them in. And they just refused. That’s a top to bottom dysfunctional Republican caucus. People need to see and understand that.
I don’t know if Donald Trump could have saved McCarthy, but I do know that he didn’t try. McCarthy, meanwhile, has been consistently and dramatically more solicitous of Trump than either his predecessor Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.
This is the thing people keep not getting about Donald Trump: He’s not a stupid person who you are easily manipulating and bending to your will. And he’s also not a champion of your cause who’ll crush your enemies. He’s a smart guy who’s exclusively a champion of his cause and who’ll stab you in the back to make a quick nickel every day. The big thing Democrats keep failing to do, in my opinion, is draw the link between Trump’s low character and his policies. But this is his thing — he takes advantage of people and screws them over.
The United States has had two instances in which there was no majority party in the House of Representatives: the 34th Congress, which was controlled by a loose coalition of ex-Whigs and proto-Republicans in alliance with the Know-Nothings, and the 36th Congress in which the GOP fell narrowly short of a majority and had to rely on the support of various minor party members.
It’s interesting to speculate why third party politics never became a bigger deal in the House except for those two periods during the 1850s. It’s also interesting that what happened next was the Civil War.
The United States will probably not have a civil war, but this is a powerful reminder that many of our core governing institutions don’t really make sense. This drama is essentially downstream of the fact that the Speaker is picked by the whole House rather than by the majority party, which requires near-unanimity among the majority party to seat a speaker. This is a stupid system.
It’s really funny to see Kevin McCarthy get his comeuppance.
An underrated asymmetry in American politics is that “extreme” Democrats are pretty normal people whose ideal policy outcomes just happen to be further away from the status quo than the moderate Democrats, while Republicans aren’t like that. The furthest-right members of the caucus aren’t guys who want to see big cuts to Medicare or whatever, the factional alignment just isn’t about policy ideal points. Instead, to be an extreme Republican is to lust after tactical and procedural radicalism — including forms that don’t make sense.
It seems like aide to Ukraine could end up being a casualty of this. If that causes Ukraine to lose the war, that would be terrible. If it causes Germany and other European countries to step up and decide that Europe should take primary responsibility for Europe’s defense, it will be great. Which will it be? I don’t know.
In a very weird way, none of this appropriations drama has brought us any closer to deficit reduction or even really featured discussion of trying to reduce the deficit.
The aforementioned 36th House took 40 ballots to choose a Speaker over a span of eight weeks, so we may be here for a while.
Slow Boring is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.