Skip to content
Maximum Chaos
Go to my account

Maximum Chaos

Should Democrats rescue McCarthy?

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks at a House GOP leadership press conference on government funding on December 14. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

Are you enjoying the humiliation of Kevin McCarthy?

His recent humiliation, I mean, not the ongoing slow-burn humiliation that’s defined his career for most of the past 10 years. Although the former is obviously part of the latter.

As is true for the wider Republican Party, McCarthy’s embarrassments typically, but not always, involve Donald Trump. His first great humiliation came when John Boehner quit as speaker in 2015, leaving the then-majority leader next in line to lead the chamber. But McCarthy couldn’t find the votes; his candidacy collapsed, clearing the way for Paul Ryan to ascend.

A year later, with Trump winning primaries, McCarthy was caught on tape musing that he thought the soon-to-be Republican nominee was being paid by Vladimir Putin. But after Trump won the presidency and began converting the party into a personality cult, McCarthy recognized that all paths to power would run through the cult leader. So he wooed Trump, successfully enough that a man whom he once suspected of being a Russian agent took to calling him “my Kevin.”

It was the personal touches that won Trump over, it seems. At one point, having learned that the president enjoyed only certain flavors of Starburst candy, McCarthy bought a few packs and told his aides to go through and pick out only the flavors Trump liked as a gift to the president. The most powerful Republican in the House had reduced himself to the equivalent of a venue owner removing the brown M&Ms from the candy bowl in Van Halen’s dressing room.

The humiliations piled up quickly in the fall of 2020.

According to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, McCarthy told him the day before the election that he and Mitch McConnell would need to issue a joint statement acknowledging a Biden victory if the Democrat won and Trump refused to concede. But when that came to pass, there was no statement. Instead, a few days after the result, McCarthy went on Fox News to insist that Trump had prevailed.

Two months later, on January 6, “my Kevin” would find himself barricaded in a room at the Capitol, begging Trump by phone to do something about the rioters rampaging through the building. To which an unsympathetic Trump allegedly replied, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

But there were more humiliations to come.

In the days after the insurrection, McCarthy told members of his caucus that he had “had it with this guy” and planned to encourage Trump to resign—but never did, as far as we know. (He also denied having ever said such a thing, whereupon reporters produced the audio.) He voted against impeachment on January 13 but delivered a floor speech before the vote affirming that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack, making the same calculation as other ambitious Republicans that it was safe politically after the disgrace of the insurrection to make an enemy of the president.

Soon he realized he had miscalculated. You know what happened next.

In a party rotten with soulless operators willing to make nice with cranks and authoritarians to protect their power, McCarthy may be the supreme example of the type. (Sorry, Elise Stefanik.) He hasn’t limited himself to courting Trump, after all; he’s made an ally of Marjorie Taylor Greene by promising her God knows what. He personifies the vacuous pre-Trump Republican establishment, ripe for cooptation by a populist demagogue who gained the ability to make or break their careers. He’s the quasi-respectable face of a thoroughly unrespectable party, the frozen rictus on the desiccated corpse of the conservative movement. In that sense, he’s the perfect man to lead the caucus.

The punchline is that, having traded every last bit of his dignity for the speakership, he still might not land the job. That’s the latest humiliation.

Are you enjoying it? I sure am.

The question is, how can we make it worse for him?

My colleagues at The Morning Dispatch admirably summarized the state of play in the speaker fight this morning. Five House Republicans led by Matt Gaetz and Andy Biggs claim they’re implacably opposed to McCarthy taking the gavel and will vote as a bloc to prevent him from doing so. If they’re true to their word, it means McCarthy can do no better than 217 votes—one short of the majority he needs. But it gets worse: There may be another, bigger bloc that intends to oppose him but hasn’t gone public about it yet. Earlier this month, Politico reported that anti-McCarthy maneuvers are happening behind the scenes (emphasis mine):

One House Republican said they’re aware of a handful more members who are keeping their opposition private until just before the January vote. And while some of McCarthy’s fiercest public critics have openly claimed that there are about 20 hard nos in the conference, others believe the Californian will likely chip away at his opposition.

Biggs gathered roughly a dozen other Freedom Caucus members for a closed door, hour-long Wednesday meeting in his office with House Parliamentarian Jason Smith, who walked them through rules and process of the speaker vote on Jan. 3, according to two people familiar with the sit-down.

On December 8, seven Republicans (not including Gaetz’s Never Kevin group) circulated a letter demanding certain procedural reforms and hinting that their votes would depend on McCarthy instituting them. The most notable demand called for reinstating the motion to vacate the chair, a mechanism by which any House member can force a vote to oust the speaker. Currently, only the leadership of each party can force a vote on a motion to vacate; the anti-Kevin Republicans want to democratize it and open it up to the entire House.

McCarthy won’t budge on that for obvious reasons. His majority is so narrow that a handful of staunch Freedom Caucus populists like Gaetz could combine with Democrats to oust him the first time he runs afoul of MAGA. His speakership would play out under a sword of Damocles that could fall at any moment.

But he’s tried everything else to make them bend. To ingratiate himself to populists, he’s chattered about impeaching Biden Cabinet members and called on Senate Republicans not to help Democrats pass a spending bill before the new House majority is seated. (McConnell’s caucus responded by rhetorically patting his head.) When that didn’t impress the Gaetz faction, he started applying pressure. Key committee chairmanships won’t be decided until the speakership is decided, he’s said, which could delay official business conducted by the new majority for days or weeks. Lately he’s enlisted dozens of (mostly) moderate Republicans to counter the Never Kevin wing by declaring that they’ll vote for McCarthy and only McCarthy for speaker, portending an intractable deadlock on January 3 if neither side budges.

Yesterday McCarthy reiterated that Senate Republicans shouldn’t be working on a spending bill with Chuck Schumer during the lame-duck session—then blamed the Never Kevin group for having left them little choice.

This morning the New York Times published a sensational expose of incoming Republican Rep. George Santos alleging that Santos has fabricated virtually his entire biography, from his professional history to his current home address. McCarthy’s quest for the gavel is so fraught, however, that all I could think while reading it is how he’s destined to resist calls for Santos to resign for his own selfish reasons. He needs that seat occupied next month. After all, the apparent con artist may end up being the vote that decides the speakership. 

If McCarthy could look the other way at Trump and Greene in his pursuit of power, surely he can look the other way at the Republican answer to Frank Abagnale. That’s the next humiliation.

There’s an X factor in all of the speaker drama that we haven’t considered, though. Namely, Republicans aren’t the only party that gets to vote on January 3. With 213 seats, Democrats can block McCarthy indefinitely so long as the five Republican Never Kevin members continue to hold out.

But they can also destroy the leverage of the Never Kevins by joining with Republicans to make McCarthy speaker. What’s the maximum chaos option between those two?

I’m coming around to the view that liberals helping to elect him would confound the GOP more than blocking him would.

The case for Democrats obstructing McCarthy is straightforward. The longer the Republican speaker stalemate grinds on, the more painful it’ll get for the American right.

You know the saying: When your enemy is making a mistake, get out of his way.

Liberals everywhere would relish having various Republican factions descend into bitter recriminations amid a deadlock, and not just along the familiar lines of moderates and populists. Picture Matt “Never Kevin” Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor “Only Kevin” Greene tossing rhetorical grenades at each other as the House slogs through multiple ballots for the speakership. Imagine Mark Levin tearing into fightin’ populists like Biggs for once instead of simpering establishmentarians like McCarthy.

Meanwhile, swing voters would watch aghast, worried that Democrats were right when they claimed the GOP was unfit to govern. A party that can’t decide on a speaker can’t be trusted with more ambitious forms of power, like total control of government. Chaos at the top on day one—literally—would augur chaos throughout the next two years, especially if the anti-Kevins end up winning their key concession on restoring the motion to vacate the chair.

There’s another benefit for Democrats from obstruction. A Republican deadlock over McCarthy would make Trump look weak. McCarthy is his candidate, after all.

“Look, I think this: Kevin has worked very hard,” Trump said. “He is just—it’s been exhausting. If you think, he’s been all over. I think he deserves the shot. Hopefully he’s going to be very strong and going to be very good and he’s going to do what everybody wants.”

“Now, I’m friendly with a lot of those people who are against Kevin. I think almost every one of them are very much inclined toward Trump, and me toward them. But I have to tell them, and I have told them, you’re playing a very dangerous game,” Trump said. “You could end up with the worse situation. I don’t even want to say what it is, but I could tell you it’s a worse situation. You could end up with some very bad situations. I use the Boehner to Paul Ryan example. You understand what I’m saying? It could be a doomsday scenario. It could be. You could end up with somebody who would be a disaster like Paul Ryan was.”

The Donald Trump of 2017 had more than enough juice within the party to call in a favor from MAGA droolers like Gaetz and Biggs. Even the Donald Trump of 2021 could have leaned on them successfully to get behind McCarthy, reluctantly or not.

The Donald Trump of 2022, six weeks removed from a disastrous midterm, hasn’t been able to sway them despite lobbying them personally. Kevin McCarthy spent six years currying Trump’s support in the perfectly reasonable belief that it would assure his path to the speakership. It’s his dumb luck that the party’s 800-pound gorilla became a 200-pound gorilla at the very moment the gavel was finally in reach. If you’re of the left, McCarthy failing on the first ballot on January 3 would be another Trump failure to promote and celebrate.

Lastly, by denying McCarthy their votes, Democrats will put pressure on moderate Republicans to start considering unorthodox solutions to the stalemate. GOP Rep. Don Bacon has raised the possibility of centrists from both parties compromising to choose a speaker to their mutual liking, although he emphasized that he’d look at the idea only if “multiple, multiple, multiple” rounds of balloting produced deadlock after deadlock.

There’s almost no chance realistically of the House electing a bipartisan consensus speaker, as moderate Republicans would be vilified for destroying the right’s leverage over the new majority. But the prospect is useful to the pro-McCarthy wing in the House. The more exasperated and radicalized centrist Republicans sound, the more pressure there’ll be on the Never Kevin faction to make a deal. Would they rather have McCarthy as speaker—or Liz Cheney?

All of these points argue for Democratic obstructionism. But if the goal of the libs is to own the cons, isn’t there a better way?

The unhappy truth for Democrats is that a long Republican standoff over the speakership is unlikely.

If this were a typical case of establishmentarians united on one side and populists united on the other, it might have legs. One can imagine the Never Kevin group holding out for days or weeks with Mar-a-Lago and conservative talk radio cheering them on. As it is, Trump, Greene, Levin, and most of right-wing infotainment is on McCarthy’s side for the simple reason that there’s no alternative candidate. Populist favorite Jim Jordan is on Team McCarthy. So is MAGA stalwart Jim Banks. If not Kevin as speaker, who?

Not only is McCarthy likely to win this battle, in other words, but the amount of populist outrage when he does is destined to be muted. There’s not a lot of con-owning in that.

Plus, if McCarthy does successfully beat down the Never Kevins and take the gavel, it’ll give him a shot of confidence as the new term begins. At the moment he’s an extraordinarily weak speaker-in-waiting. If he carrot-and-sticks his way to 218, overcoming the objections of some of the noisiest and most pugnacious populists in the caucus, he’ll look stronger. That’s bad for Democrats, who should want a weakened McCarthy presiding over a divided caucus.

The solution, then: Designate 20 or so House Democrats to vote for him on January 3, replacing the Republican Never Kevin votes and electing him speaker. Frankly, it would be a service to the country to have the most obstructionist populists neutralized on day one of the new term. Or, if that’s too much to ask, just have House Democrats vote “present” instead of voting for their own caucus leader, Hakeem Jeffries. Remember that the speaker is elected by winning a majority of those who are present and voting; if all Democrats present decline to cast a ballot for any candidate, McCarthy would be elected easily by winning a majority of Republicans.

How do Democrats benefit from helping McCarthy win the gavel? Well, the worst thing one can do to a Republican in our populist era is to suggest that he’s beholden to the dreaded left. Having McCarthy prevail in the speaker race due to Democratic support would drench him in lib-stink so pungent that it’ll never wear off. Gaetz and the rest will spend the rest of his speakership referring to him as “Democrat-elected Kevin McCarthy.” And although that might not sting much now, it’ll sting later when the predictable showdowns over Ukraine aid and the debt ceiling come to the floor.

McCarthy will come under intense pressure to pass legislation in both of those cases, over populist objections. And when he does, the Never Kevins will remind everyone that he’s just paying off his patrons in the Democratic caucus who helped make him speaker. MAGA voters might be more receptive to that argument by then, with unpredictable consequences for McCarthy’s reign.

In fact, if the current rules in the House hold next term, the Democratic leadership would be able to offer a motion to vacate the chair at any time, imperiling McCarthy’s hold on power so long as the Republican Never Kevin caucus wants him out. The speaker would be under Jeffries’ thumb. What Democrats giveth, they can taketh away (with help from the Gaetz/Biggs caucus, of course).

There’s a scenario in which Democrats can have their cake and eat it too. They could oppose McCarthy on the first ballot, or first few ballots, in the expectation that the GOP will deadlock. That would deliver the “Republican chaos” narrative they’re craving. Then they could ride to McCarthy’s rescue on the fourth or fifth ballot, breaking the Never Kevin roadblock and delivering the “libs own McCarthy” narrative that’ll dog him for the rest of his time in Congress. 

The best of both worlds! The maximum chaos option.

But it’s risky. If I’m right that the Republican Never Kevins will fold early, Democrats may miss their chance to give McCarthy lib-cooties by supporting him. He could win on the first or second ballot, before any Dems have crossed the aisle, strengthening his hand in the House. If Jeffries and his caucus want to ensure that they’re credited with securing the gavel for him, indebting him to them (or at least creating the perception in populist media that he’s indebted to them), the time to do it might be on the first ballot before Gaetz and the rest have a chance to cave.

If I were Jeffries, I’d roll the dice on maximum chaos. Let Republicans try to elect McCarthy themselves on the first ballot, with no Democratic support. The Never Kevins have invested enough rhetorically in their opposition that they’re probably stuck having to vote against him at least one time, ensuring a stalemate. Then, on the second ballot, Dems break the deadlock by voting for him or voting present. That’s all Jeffries needs for the cake-and-eat-it-too play.

I’ll leave you with Lauren Boebert sounding not very enthused about McCarthy despite Trump’s endorsement. The Never Kevin vote may be bigger than we think. The humiliation may be bigger too.

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.