Skip to content
‘Is This a Game Show?’
Go to my account

‘Is This a Game Show?’

Fun and prizes with the anti-McCarthy bloc.

Sean Hannity speaks during CPAC’s Texas 2022 conference. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images.)

Feral creatures can’t be fully domesticated. From Kevin McCarthy being humiliated by the Trumpist wing he cynically courted to Trump himself being defied by the insurgents he empowered, the leopards’ bellies are suddenly full with the faces of their friends and “handlers.”

Trump is reportedly aghast at how “stupid” and pointless roadblocking McCarthy is. Newt Gingrich, a MAGA fellow traveler and longtime Trump apologist, told Axios he “can’t imagine how one could run the House with the blackmailers as self-righteous and militant as they currently are” and warned that the GOP is in deeper trouble than at any point since 1964. A wing of the party committed to thwarting “the establishment” at every turn has insisted on doing just that and its admirers are shocked, shocked.

Of all the instances of enablers struggling to cope with what they’ve wrought, though, none is more enjoyable than Fox News’ longest-serving host complaining that Republican politics has become a “game show.” 

“Is this a game show?” said a peeved Bob Barker to The Price Is Right contestant.

The current leader of the party was literally a game-show host before entering politics yet was eagerly endorsed for president in 2016 by his good friend Sean Hannity. Hannity’s preferred candidate for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat last year was likewise a longtime television personality who’s been known to host game shows from time to time.

The biggest name on the populist vaudeville circuit nowadays happens to be a former TV star who lately has immersed herself fully in make-believe.

Grassroots politics and the “infotainment” media complex that serves it has been a game show for years, and Hannity is one of its most prominent emcees. The game is to see who can perform contempt for populism’s enemies most effectively, whether through rhetorical skill or sheer pugnaciousness. The prizes are political clout, fundraising hauls from activists blissed out on rage, and attention, attention, attention.

“The problem any GOP leader faces today is that too many Republicans don’t really want to hold and keep political power,” the Wall Street Journal claimed astutely in an editorial about McCarthy’s ordeal. “They’re much more comfortable in opposition in the minority, which is easier because no hard decisions or compromises are necessary. You can rage against ‘the swamp’ without having to do anything to change it.” As if to prove their point, Lauren Boebert said in an interview on Wednesday night that she’d have trouble supporting anyone in the current House Republican leadership, not just McCarthy.

The biggest game show in the conservative world, the one you really want to be on, is Sean Hannity’s Fox News. They’ve been the true “establishment” in the Republican Party for many years, although I doubt they ever expected to be viewed that way by the populists they cultivated. All you need to know about the incentives of the party’s “game-show wing” is that Boebert was rewarded for her obstruction of McCarthy on Wednesday night with the grand prize, an appearance in Fox prime time to inveigh against her “establishment” enemies.

Boebert may or may not be reelected in 2024; she came tantalizingly close to being upset in November. But if she loses, she’ll be a mainstay on the vaudeville circuit for years. Already, having just completed a single term as a member of Congress, she must be among the top 5 percent of representatives most recognizable to grassroots Republicans.

Winning the game show doesn’t require winning elections. To the contrary, as Trump and Lake have proved.

If the contest in the House were as simple as McCarthy versus the “game show” wing, our rooting interests would also be simple.

Sort of. More on that below.

But the contest isn’t so simple. The anti-Kevin bloc is actually two blocs, the game-show contestants like Boebert and Matt Gaetz and a separate faction led by Chip Roy that’s seeking procedural reforms to House business. The Boebert/Gaetz faction, which seems composed of five to 10 members, is the true “Never Kevin” group. Roy’s group is more of a “Maybe Kevin” segment that might be willing to come around if McCarthy gives them what they want.

And here’s where it gets complicated: The prize they’re seeking is one worth seeking. To repeat a point made in yesterday’s newsletter, returning to “regular order” in the House would be good for democracy—if it’s used to arrive at workable bipartisan compromises. (In an era as partisan ours, opening up amendments to the entire House would likely result in endless poison pills and “messaging” legislation.)

On Wednesday night, desperate to win over the “Maybe Kevin” segment, McCarthy reportedly gave away the farm in negotiations. A key concession via Politico:

Major changes to the appropriations process: Fears of another trillion-plus-dollar omnibus spending bill have been a major driver of the conservative backlash to McCarthy. The brewing deal includes a promise for standalone votes on each of the 12 yearly appropriations bills, which would be considered under what is known as an “open rule,” allowing floor amendments to be offered by any lawmaker. Conservatives also won a concession to carve out any earmarks included in those packages for separate votes, though it’s unclear if they’d be voted on as one package or separately.

Would anyone dispute that the House is better off considering appropriations bills individually, with contributions from all members, than rubber-stamping an omnibus monstrosity written by the leadership three hours before funding for the government runs out which no voting member has read? The rubber-stamp model, which Congress has followed for years, makes a mockery of legislating. If the circus this week in the House ends with the chamber functioning like it’s supposed to function, even at the price of being led by the woeful Kevin McCarthy, it all might have been worth it.

But that’s not the only eleventh-hour concession McCarthy made, which further complicates our rooting interests.

He reportedly capitulated on a core anti-Kevin demand, agreeing to reduce the threshold of members required to file a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair to just one. Maybe that doesn’t matter given that he had already agreed to lower the threshold to five; if something happens in the House going forward to cause any single Kevin-hater in the caucus to try to oust him, chances are that another four Kevin-haters would be willing to join them.

The symbolism is grim, though. For two months McCarthy resisted giving in on the motion to vacate but has now reached a point of such desperation that he’s willing to surrender. The anti-Kevins successfully ground him down and lessons will be learned from that as the next congressional term plays out. “He’s essentially given away all the power of the speakership. He’s making it to where these Freedom Caucus guys can stop anything they want,” one Republican aide told Politico. “It’s a vanity project. This majority is going to be miserable.”

There were more concessions. Reportedly Team McCarthy is also prepared to give two and potentially four seats on the House Rules Committee to members of the Freedom Caucus, granting the populist wing enormous influence over floor amendments. And McCarthy’s powerful PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, bent to demands by the Club for Growth by agreeing not to spend money on contested primaries in safe Republican districts in the future. (For a party dedicated to “draining the swamp,” having two PACs negotiate the fate of the House speakership seems awfully “swampy.”) The next time a “game-show contestant” runs for Congress in a ruby-red district, in other words, the House leadership won’t support a more mainstream candidate against them.

Which means, notwithstanding the hard lessons learned in November about “candidate quality,” whoever ends up leading the House Republican caucus in 2025 is apt to have more Matt Gaetzes in their ranks. McCarthy is willing to make the House less governable for Republicans in the future, probably replete with a larger “Never Kevin” bloc, in exchange for claiming the gavel now.

His reward for all of these concessions, incidentally, was gaining not a single vote in the seventh round of balloting for speaker held on Thursday afternoon. He lost 21 Republicans, the same as Wednesday. Further capitulations will be required, assuming there’s anything left to surrender. And even if he gives up enough to win over Roy’s bloc, the true “Never Kevin” bloc of game-show contestants may be large enough to deny him the speakership anyway.

All of which raises the question: What’s the optimal outcome of this episode from the standpoint of a reasonable conservative? How should we want to see this particular game-show episode end?

The Sorkinesque ending would be for a group of Republican moderates to trump the “game-show” wing by making a deal with Democrats to elect a centrist Republican speaker. In theory, it could happen: No fewer than 18 House Republicans represent districts won by Joe Biden in 2020, giving them an electoral incentive to play nice with the other party. But there’s a reason Sorkinesque endings never happen in real life. In real life, any Republican who made common cause with the left to place a “RINO” in charge of the House would be primaried into oblivion and McCarthy’s opponents know it. One very lamentable outcome of the endless game-show-ification of GOP politics is that the modern Republican “audience” wants to see its representatives play the game. Any candidate who demonstrates more contempt for populist Republicans than for Democrats is at risk of disqualification, even if they’re acting in good faith for the country’s benefit. That’s why eight of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021 are now out of politics.

A fun ending (or chapter en route to an ending) would be McCarthy dropping out in futility and the “Always Kevin” faction revolting against a consensus candidate supported by the 20 members of the anti-Kevin bloc. On Wednesday, McCarthy supporter Dan Crenshaw threatened to do just that. “McCarthy would have to resign from Congress, then I’ll consider an alternative,” he told reporters. “But I’ll tell you what, whoever that 20 wants, I will never vote for that person. I do not care who it is. They want to play this game, we’ll play the game.”

I’m skeptical that he means it, although if Crenshaw ends up losing the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee because of the “Never Kevin” hijinks he might be out for revenge. But even if he is, it’s unlikely that enough “Always Kevin” members will join him to block a compromise candidate that emerges. The responsible members of the caucus are cursed with an obligation that doesn’t afflict the game-show wing, a duty to govern. A new stalemate over Steve Scalise, say, that’s driven by pro-McCarthy diehards would further delay House business. And it would shift the blame for the current impasse from the Gaetz game-show wing to the “sensible Republican” bloc, raising questions about just how sensible they are.

The basic problem, as has been the case for seven years, is that only one of the two right-wing parties under the Republican umbrella is willing to take hostages to get its way, to the extent that taking hostages isn’t the goal itself. (“Watching McCarthy try to bargain with them has been darkly humorous, because dealing is in McCarthy’s blood but they are fundamentally anti-deal, whether with Democrats or with him. That is, in fact, their core precept,” writes David Graham of McCarthy’s opponents.) If Crenshaw and his allies want to make a fuss and delay the election of Speaker Scalise for a week, I’m sure the “Never Kevins” would be delighted. More chaos means more attention, more fundraising, more clout.

So there won’t be a centrist speaker with bipartisan support and there won’t be any extended resistance from traditional Republicans to a consensus choice. What about McCarthy, though? Should we want to see him prevail or fail?

The case for wanting him to win is straightforward. It’s always gratifying to see the game-show wing lose and a McCarthy victory at this point would be a major defeat for the Gaetz bloc. (Although not the Roy bloc.) Because their political incentives are so perverse, it’s hard to beat them in a test of wills. McCarthy prevailing, even with a bit of Democratic help, would be a minor political lesson that “crime doesn’t pay.”

The price of him prevailing would be having a speaker of unusual, possibly historic weakness in charge of the House. But if your top priority in all this is spiting Lauren Boebert, you’re Team Kevin.

The case for wanting him to lose comes from David Frum.

If McCarthy somehow ekes out a win, he will be broken from the beginning—an officeholder who holds only the office, not the power of the office.

A speaker of the House who does not speak for a majority of the House is a waste of time and space. He speaks for nobody, he acts for nobody, and there’s no point in negotiating with him. Seeking a decision from him will be like seeking a decision from the president of Lebanon, when everybody knows that it’s actually Hezbollah who controls the guns and money, and is the power in the land. To have to deal directly with Hezbollah is unlovely, but more practical and probably safer, with less room for misunderstanding along the way.

By electing a more ideological speaker, Republicans may inadvertently shape a less ideological House majority. Imagine what this House will look like after a McCarthy defeat. Twenty Republican House members will have exposed 200 colleagues to national ridicule for reasons that even those 20 insurgents cannot coherently explain. Are the 200 now likely to follow the 20 into a fight to default on the U.S. debt? To slash American aid to Ukraine and hand the advantage to Russian President Vladimir Putin? To try to impeach President Joe Biden over some QAnon fantasy? To devote the next Congress to waging war on the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies? Or will they more likely say, “That’s enough from you—you have embarrassed us one time too many”?

Well said, but I don’t know that Scalise would fare any better. Presumably he’d need to agree to all of the concessions that McCarthy has made or else he’d lose the Roy bloc, imperiling his own chances. And as much as the rest of the caucus resents the 20 anti-Kevin members for having humiliated McCarthy this week, that resentment should abide regardless of whether McCarthy wins the gavel or not. The Republican game-show “audience” may relish McCarthy’s tribulations but the party “establishment” in all its forms—Trump, Hannity, most of talk radio, most of the House caucus—has new reason to fear and loathe the game-show wing having now seen the sort of obstruction they’re capable of. That’s a good thing ahead of next year’s debt-ceiling showdown.

In the end, it might not matter what happens. The next speaker, whether McCarthy or an alternative, will be weaker than any in modern history. And the Republican caucus, whether led by McCarthy or an alternative, will have been served notice that they’d better warm up to working with Democrats this term if they don’t want to remain hostages of the game-show wing.

I leave you with a question. Is there a point at which McCarthy might give away so much to the anti-Kevin bloc that the “Always Kevin” wing decides he’s no longer worth supporting?

They want him to be speaker but it can’t be that they’re willing to see their majority placed entirely under the thumb of their most obnoxious colleagues in the name of making that happen, even if McCarthy himself is willing. If Gaetz were to decide that his “Never Kevin” wing will surrender if and only if he replaces Scalise as majority leader, is that price worth paying? What if Gaetz extracts a promise from McCarthy to absolutely, positively not raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances?

Personal loyalty to McCarthy must have a limit. If it doesn’t, they might as well make Gaetz speaker.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.