Ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy was removed Tuesday evening from his position. Photo: WRIC
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Kevin McCarthy. After all, he had done nearly everything that the far-right faction of his conference wanted, given in to their every demand. Why ever would that fail to satisfy them? But in the end, his actions recalled the parable of the scorpion and the frog. As Fortune magazine retold it,
A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog then agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature.
It is the nature of nihilistic, burn-it-to-the-ground extremists to destroy everything around them, including the very party that once carried them to victory. McCarthy’s mistake was thinking he could ever change that by actually inviting the crazies in and embracing them even closer. Instead, he became the first ever speaker in the 240-year history of the House of Representatives to be ousted. In a period of historic firsts—first president impeached twice, first president to be indicted (and charged 91 times), and now first successful motion to vacate the chair—the GOP seems determined to outdo itself.
As writer Charlotte Clymer colorfully put it, “McCarthy served 270 days, the equivalent of 27 scaramuccis or 0.093 of a pelosi, after giving away his power—and his dignity—to man-toddlers who eventually stabbed him in the back.”
Let’s look at what happened yesterday and then answer some common questions about where things go from here in the GOP’s fractured majority in the House.
Mean Girls Day
October 3rd is a day that sticks in my mind because of my favorite movie, Mean Girls, which is turning out to carry many lessons for the GOP. The Lincoln Project was out with a meme quickly.
“On October 3rd, he asked me what day it was!” exclaims Cady Heron of the dreamy Aaron Samuels.
“It’s Kevin McCarthy’s last day as Speaker,” Cady responds.
Indeed, it was.
After Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) made good on his promise to file a motion to vacate the chair, McCarthy pressed for quick consideration of the motion, rebuffing calls to wait until Thursday when more members were back in Washington. He apparently had hoped to catch a number of Democratic House members away. Nancy Pelosi missed the votes, for example, because she was attending the funeral of her longtime friend, the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
No matter. After first losing a procedural vote to table the motion, with 11 Republicans voting “no” along with all the Democrats present, Kevin McCarthy faced a full vote of the House and was removed by a vote of 216 to 210, with eight GOP members joining all of the Democrats. Even Gretchen Wieners—er, I mean, Nancy Mace (R-SC)—who styles herself as a moderate, was a yea on the motion. Et tu, Nancy?
It bears noting that the Democrats had met as a group earlier that day and emerged with a consensus that they would not be helping McCarthy out. There was simply too much bad blood, from his kissing Trump’s ring two weeks after condemning him for January 6; to his reneging on the budget deal struck in May; to his launch of an impeachment inquiry against Joe Biden based on nothing but speculation; to his blaming the Democrats for the near shutdown of the government, when it was Democrats who had kept it open. They simply did not trust him and saw no reason to throw him a lifeline. In fact, he never even asked for help from them directly, though his minions reportedly made a series of calls begging moderate Democrats to save him.
After the vote, several members of the House Republican conference gathered in a group to pray on the House floor, while Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), wept openly. It was quite a fall for Rep. Wagner, who had triumphantly spearheaded two anti-abortion measures earlier in the year with Speaker McCarthy’s blessing.
McCarthy’s loss of the speakership leaves the GOP effectively without leadership in the House, at a time when appropriations remain largely unfinished.
The Speaker pro tempore
The gavel is currently in the hands of a caretaker Speaker pro tempore, Patrick T. McHenry (R-NC), who gaveled out the evening with such ferocity that he damn near cracked the thing. It’s a good thing men aren’t emotional in politics.
McHenry is supposed to hold the position only so long as it takes to elect a new speaker, and to wield the gavel only for purposes of getting this done. But he couldn’t help but act like yet another petulant man-baby, ordering Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi to clear out her office in the Capitol building and relocate to the Cannon Building. Pelosi issued a response:
With all of the important decisions that the new Republican Leadership must address, which we are all eagerly awaiting, one of the first actions taken by the new Speaker Pro Tempore was to order me to immediately vacate my office in the Capitol. Sadly, because I am in California to mourn the loss of and pay tribute to my dear friend Dianne Feinstein, I am unable to retrieve my belongings at this time.
Petty moves aside, McHenry won’t have any real power to push legislation through, and few even inside the GOP would likely stand for him seeking to assert himself in any way except as a momentary caretaker.
So what happens next?
With McCarthy out, the GOP is back to where it was in January, without the numbers to put someone over the top. One key piece of news that already broke: McCarthy won’t be running for the job again.
That leaves a number of possible replacements. The No. 2 in the House is Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who is well liked but faces health challenges, as he is currently undergoing treatment for blood cancer. Other names that have bubbled up include Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and the No. 3 guy in charge of this mess, Tom Emmer (R-MN).
There is no consensus candidate as of this moment. The House GOP members scattered to their districts on Tuesday night after the debacle, giving a cooling off period before they regroup next week.
Isn’t the devil we know better?
There is considerable and understandable consternation that we might wind up with someone worse than McCarthy, whose feckless cowardice at least led to predictable capitulations and back to the inevitable point of political equilibrium.
But it’s also fair to say that even someone more extreme, like a Jim Jordan, couldn’t actually do anything with this fractured majority beyond what McCarthy already did with it. A House majority without a Senate in concurrence can accomplish little other than hearings and inquiries, which is what the GOP has been up to for months already with nothing to show for it. Handing the keys to the bus to someone else who doesn’t know how to drive isn’t going to keep the party from catastrophe next November.
It also might take some time before they can coalesce around a new leader. Extremists want someone to the right of McCarthy, but moderates might never support such a candidate. And even assuming they did, the party would quickly find itself exactly where it is now: facing a government shutdown while it tries to renege on a deal already agreed to, and up against a Democratically-controlled Senate ready to get on with the business of governing.
The political fallout
The collapse of GOP leadership in the House likely will become a central talking point for Democrats for the 2024 elections. The GOP brand is already badly tarnished by everything from anti-abortion extremism to election denialism to authoritarian suppression.
One thing is clear, however: It was Trump, acting behind the scenes by pressing extremists to hold the line against the budget, who is in large part to blame for the destruction of the House GOP. He won’t take ownership of that, of course, but the amount of damage he has inflicted upon his own party cannot be overstated.
And in a weird twist, some members of the far-right are moving to nominate Donald Trump as Speaker. Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX) announced late Tuesday he will file paperwork to nominate the former president to be the next Speaker, who in fact doesn’t have to be a member of the body to preside as Speaker. In the past Trump has said he would not be interested in the job, so it’s unclear whether he would take such a nomination seriously. But it does demonstrate how rudderless and leaderless the House GOP caucus is that they once again turn to their Dear Leader to beg him to rescue them. (Trump of course wouldn’t know the first thing about how to act as Speaker, or move legislation through, or count votes, nor would he have time to learn the ropes given his trial schedule. Perhaps they could recruit his son Eric, who at least is foolish enough to accept and might soon have nothing to do because all his businesses have had their certificates to operate in the state canceled.)
That plan for Trump to take charge might run smack into the GOP’S own House rules, though, which requires leadership to step aside if indicted for a felony with a punishment of more than two years.
Returning to the scorpion and frog fable, and looking back at his tragic and brief tenure, McCarthy’s political death was inevitable. The moment he began to negotiate with the caucus terrorists in order to secure his seat, he sowed the seeds of his ultimate destruction. After all, under the terms of his parole, a single missed frog step could bring down a motion to vacate by a single member. By May, McCarthy had already committed the giant sin of compromising with the Democrats in a near evenly divided government, and a few months later, a single MAGA scorpion planted its stinger right into his back.