Column: Kevin McCarthy ‘won’ the House speakership. Now the country will pay the price

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene touches the arm of Rep. Kevin McCarthy on the floor of the House Chamber of the Capitol Building.
Newly minted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, seen with Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, made so many concessions to win the post he will spend his tenure living on a razor’s edge.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

For years, Kevin McCarthy wanted to be speaker of the House in the worst possible way, and that’s precisely what he accomplished by winning the leadership post after 15 humiliating rounds of voting and days of give-away-the-store negotiations.

McCarthy may have once dreamed of striding boldly forth to claim the mantle of a robust Republican majority.

Instead, with the GOP barely in control and the chamber in chaos, McCarthy crawled into the speakership early Saturday on his hands and knees.

He ceded so much to foes — effective veto power over must-pass legislation, greater say over committee assignments, allowing a sole dissident to trigger a vote on his ouster — that McCarthy will spend his shaky tenure, as long as it lasts, balanced on a razor’s edge. One nick and he’s gone.


Far more troubling, McCarthy’s cowardly concessions leave the country hostage for the next two years to an extreme fringe of far-right zealots, who threaten to turn the normal operation of government and such typically routine business — like raising the debt ceiling to avoid default and economic catastrophe — into a cliffhanging drama.

The deep humbling of McCarthy could be seen as cruel, a snub by fellow lawmakers whose power was made possible by the Bakersfield Republican’s years of hard work as grand strategist and campaigner in chief for the House GOP. But the drip-drip torture of prolonged balloting was so egregiously self-inflicted, so glaring in the making and so abundantly well-deserved that it is impossible to muster even the slightest bit of sympathy.

The Republican leader’s victory came at a price: McCarthy had to agree to a series of compromises that dramatically weaken the power of his new post.

Jan. 6, 2023

The fecklessness of McCarthy has been well chronicled, and a further accounting needn’t go on at length. One example stands out: The outrage he expressed at then-President Trump for instigating the Jan. 6 riot quickly melted not just into acceptance but utter capitulation, as McCarthy hastened to Mar-a-Lago to beg forgiveness for having, ever so briefly, dared hold the Oval Office tyrant to account.

There are marshmallows made of sterner stuff.

But McCarthy has long been guided by one thing, and one thing only: the acquisition of power (by whatever means necessary) and ascension to the leadership post that very nearly exceeded his grasp.

Policy has never been McCarthy’s forte. There is no landmark legislation that bears his thumbprint, no law that flowed from the wellspring of his intellect. Campaigns and elections have been his sole skill set and personal relations his great specialty: the backslapping, glad-handing hail-fellow bonhomie that made the nine-term congressman likable enough to fellow Republicans, but not someone they particularly respected.

Though there is nothing wrong with that — you can’t accomplish a great deal in politics without making friends and winning elections — there has never been much more than that. McCarthy has proven a man unworthy of trust, his spine bendable, his values pliable, his beliefs open to barter.

There are weather vanes with more firmly fixed positions.

As a lawmaker in Sacramento when moderate Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in charge, McCarthy fought to keep GOP extremists at bay. As a member of Congress, and major recruiter of Republican candidates, he embraced the GOP fringe, starting with the far-right “tea party” movement and continuing under the QAnon-embracing Trump.


McCarthy helped bring a fire-spitting breed of anti-government, anti-establishment radicals into the GOP tent, and then almost lost his end of the bargain when they turned against him.

The blandishments McCarthy might have offered to horse trade his way to the speakership — fancy titles, perks, a fundraising appearance — meant little to those Republican holdouts who would like nothing more than to burn Washington to the ground.

In the end, a willingness to neuter himself was the price McCarthy was forced, and proved sadly willing, to pay.

There is an epithet thrown at those in the GOP deemed less than 100% pure: Republican in name only. McCarthy, eagerly stepping into a straitjacket of his own design, has earned himself the dubious distinction of becoming speaker in name only.

His rudderless soul and ham-fisted miscalculation stand in notable contrast to his most recent predecessor, Nancy Pelosi.

While the San Francisco Democrat never ruled her caucus as the googly-eyed liberal of popular parody, she was guided by a bone-deep set of left-leaning convictions that helped yield a series of triumphs, including passage of Obamacare after many in her party had given up. Not least, a firm set of guiding principles also helped marshal the unruly cadre on her side of the aisle.

All McCarthy managed to prove in his clumsy reach for power was a bottomless capacity to get pushed around and capitulate to extortion. He won with scarcely a vote to spare.

Twenty zealots — the product of a generation of GOP radicalism and dysfunction — held Congress, the Republican Party and the nation hostage this week.

Jan. 6, 2023

At bottom, McCarthy had to struggle to claim the prize he long sought because he was too transparently ambitious and too blatantly transactional — which is saying something in an institution fueled by ambition and where mutual backscratching has been elevated to a high art form.

“Kevin McCarthy is not a conservative,” Virginia Rep. Bob Good, one of the original and most fervent of the never-McCarthy Republicans, told Politico in the run-up to the speakership vote. “He kind of just floats with whatever’s politically expedient.”

McCarthy cashed out his integrity a long time ago.

Sadly, the country will now have to pay the price.