Even if he prevails, a weakened McCarthy will be Speaker in name only

Adam Wildsmith

January 6, 2023

After three days, eleven ballots and a catalogue of eccentric moments the House of Representatives is still to elect a Speaker. It was three days of reckoning for the Republican party as they learnt through successive ballots that Kevin McCarthy, their conference leader and heir apparent to the Speakership, is unlikely to succeed in his quest to become the most powerful man on Capitol Hill.

Not since 1859 has the lower House held as many ballots to elect a Speaker – then it took 44 ballots to break the impasse.

The failure to elect a Speaker is not only an embarrassing spectacle for the Republican Party but foreshadows how an unswerving group of hardened Republicans will dictate the direction of their party’s conference for at least the next cycle. Washington is broken is an electioneering phrase often spouted on the campaign trail, but the 118th Congress has personified its actuality.

How did we get here? This is a timebomb that has slowly been ticking away since the Republicans disastrously underperformed in last November’s mid-term elections: they gained only a slim majority in the House and lost one seat to the Democrats in the Senate. A small, yet organised and powerful group of ultra-conservative republicans (known within the House as the Freedom Caucus) set their sights on preventing McCarthy from becoming speaker.

Some in the Freedom Caucus believe McCarthy too weak to be Speaker of the House. Despite McCarthy subscribing to the tenets of Trumpism, they think he is a moderate in disguise and undeserving of the Speaker’s gavel. While others, a group of around five led by Florida Congressman Matt Gatez, simply don’t like McCarthy; this group have branded themselves the ‘Never Kevins’.

In an aggressive and at times bombastic diatribe that took aim at McCarthy, Democrats and the media, Matt Gaetz nominated former President Donald Trump for the speakership, a gross display of sycophancy that was as unedifying as it was unthinkable.

Today only one thing is certain: McCarthy can only afford to lose four Republican votes if he is to secure a majority in the House. Across eleven ballots, the lowest number of detractors has been nineteen, and that was in ballot one – every subsequent ballot has seen twenty or more detractors, a worrying trend for the McCarthy camp.

It’s mystifying as to why, after eleven defeats, McCarthy would want the job. If he were to become Speaker now, it would be in name only, having conceded every power of the gavel to the Freedom Caucus. McCarthy has conceded time and again in this negotiation, he even agreed to allow just five Republicans to force a vote to remove the Speaker instead of the current requirement that a majority of Republicans join the call.

Even if this were enough to persuade the detractors (which it hasn’t been so far), every vote that encompassed bipartisan compromise or pushed for policy that caused friction with conservatives, would be torpedoed by the Freedom Caucus under threat of a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair. McCarthy would have no authority. As we know from our politics in Britain, a leader without authority is doomed for defeat.

This is a fracture that will haunt the Republican Party into 2024 and beyond. The midterms provided an opportunity for the party to reset and learn from the mistakes of a campaign that bolstered election deniers, partook in a cult of personality and took the American people for fools. Instead, the party has divided further and undermined the institutions of government once again.

Of course, this would be amusing if it were not so destructive. Like most Congressional Republicans, Kevin McCarthy has spent the last six years running scared of Donald Trump, bolstering his reckless leadership and further rupturing the partisan chasm that has engulfed American politics.

Matt Gaetz and the extreme MAGA rebels that have held the House of Representatives hostage and prevented Kevin McCarthy from assuming the speakership, are a creation of McCarthy’s own and the hundreds of republican lawmakers who failed to stamp out the scourge of Trumpism – they are now paying the penalty for their cowardice. Kevin McCarthy is Victor Frankenstein and Matt Gaetz is his Monster.

At the end of Mary Shelly’s classic novel, Victor Frankenstein dies wishing that he could destroy the Monster he created. Like Victor Frankenstein, Kevin McCarthy (his career at least) has been killed by the Monster he helped construct. After three days, eleven ballots, and momentum edging away from McCarthy, it’s credible to ponder whether the embattled Republican leader now wishes he had destroyed Trumpism before it destroyed him.


Written by Adam Wildsmith

Adam Wildsmith is Deputy Director at Blue Beyond and a Journalism student at Newcastle University

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