Op-Ed: Kevin McCarthy’s speaker-election fiasco has been brewing in the GOP for years

men in suits clap
Things weren’t going too well for Rep. Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday afternoon.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Tossing concessions left and right, and still falling short, Kevin McCarthy found out the hard way what happens when you try to bargain your way to victory.

The historic chaos that unfolded on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was years in the making.

To understand why, for the first time in more than a century, multiple ballots were required in an effort to elect a speaker of the House, you have to go back more than eight years to June 10, 2014. That night, the sitting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary to right-wing challenger Dave Brat.


At the time, Cantor was a part of a trifecta dubbed “The Young Guns” with Rep. Paul Ryan and — you guessed it — McCarthy. The trio represented the next generation of leadership for House Republicans. Cantor was pegged as the would-be speaker-in-waiting, McCarthy his loyal deputy and Ryan controlling the policy agenda. It was the perfect succession plan … until Cantor was pushed off the ballot by his district’s voters back in Virginia.

Back then, names like Steve Bannon, Breitbart and Laura Ingraham were considered to be on the fringes of the Republican Party. They weren’t power brokers. They had no proximity to influential leaders in the party. But in supporting Brat and taking out Cantor, this extreme wing of the GOP claimed its first victory over the so-called establishment. It then propelled the “red wave” of the 2014 midterms, clinching Republican control of the House and winning the Senate.

A year later, the fringe claimed another victory, creating an untenable environment for Speaker John Boehner that concluded with his resignation. With Cantor gone, all eyes turned to McCarthy to step into the speaker’s chair. On the eve of the vote, the House Freedom Caucus released a public statement announcing their opposition to McCarthy. McCarthy withdrew from the race 24 hours later, paving the way for Paul Ryan to become speaker. Two years later, Ryan would retire from Congress as Democrats and Rep. Nancy Pelosi ascended to power. The radical wing was not defeated, just gathering strength.

Time and again, we’ve seen a vocal minority within the Republican conference exert an inordinate amount of influence over the majority. Each time, with each conflict, the response from the Republican leadership was to back down or fold.

That reflex to pander to the most extreme voices within their party is what allowed President Trump to hijack it. For Trump, it wasn’t even difficult. The party simply surrendered to him as his novelty candidacy gathered attention during the 2016 presidential primary.

What could possibly fuel the radical fringe more successfully than putting a like-minded person in the White House? Trump’s legacy is an energized cadre of politicians whose policy platform seems to simply be “burn it all down.”


Painful as it was to watch the GOP lurch toward Trump in 2016, we’ve seen the same pattern with the party’s reaction to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Rather than break from Trump and denounce the extremist elements within their conference that stoked the flames of violent insurrection, today’s Republican Party has once again retreated from the battlefield and has looked to placate the domestic terrorists involved in the Capitol siege.

Is it any wonder that on Tuesday afternoon, 19 insurrection-loving extremists felt like they could successfully hold hostage a conference of 222? This has long been predictable. History has taught them that when push comes to shove, the Republican “leadership” will always back down.

At this point, in many ways, it doesn’t even matter whether McCarthy is successful in his quest to become speaker. If he does, he will limp into the office, positioned as the weakest speaker in modern history. He will have lost control of the chamber before he once grasped the gavel.

There’s a reason the official policy of the United States government is to not negotiate with terrorists, domestic or otherwise. That approach merely encourages them.

Kurt Bardella is a contributing writer to Opinion. He is a Democratic strategist and a former senior advisor for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee. @KurtBardella