“How did you become bankrupt?” asks a character in one of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novels. “Little by little,” was the famous response. “Then, suddenly.”
And the same goes for Kevin McCarthy, politically and morally bankrupt.
On Tuesday, he was removed from his position as speaker of the House of Representatives (for the first time in the nation’s history) in a summary execution induced by a small group of far-right Republicans, who were gladly aided and abetted by Democrats with revenge mentality.
The moment, for all its drama, seemed orderly from the moment McCarthy barely won the job.
Power and responsibility did not reshape man or summon deep reserves of character and wisdom. There is a void at McCarthy’s core that has long been evident, and it left him empty and bereft as he fought to stay in power.
He never cared much about passing laws or enacting policies. He never exhibited a set of deeply held beliefs beyond what was needed to win an election. Rather, McCarthy’s driving force was his personal ambition. His principles were just another chip thrown on the table in negotiations.
As a result, the Bakersfield Republican has ended up being the proverbial man without a country or, in his case, without an electorate to support him.
Democrats hate him. So do nihilistic Republicans led by McCarthy’s archenemy, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who gleefully introduced the resolution to vacate the presidency, as the process is known.
A comparison with McCarthy’s immediate predecessor as speaker is instructive.
Nancy Pelosi and McCarthy are natives of California. Both are voracious fundraisers and encyclopedic in their political knowledge.
But the similarities end there.
Pelosi, who will be remembered as one of the most powerful and influential speakers in history, also worked with narrow margins and faced her own challenge by corralling wayward members. But the San Francisco Democrat is legislatively savvy and possesses a deep set of convictions and a command of the materials before her.
While McCarthy has never been “into what a bill says or had a specific political interest,” Pelosi knew the bottom line of individual lawmakers, the content of the legislation and “how to make legislative compromises,” said Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University and an expert at the conference.
(Of course, it helped that Pelosi’s Democratic colleagues actually wanted to get things done.)
“So it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘Hey, let’s make a deal,’” Green said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, I understand where you’re coming from. Let’s see how we can bridge the differences between the different groups in our party.’”
For fans of deja vu, Tuesday’s scene — anger, recrimination, members staring wide-eyed in a packed House chamber — recalled the chaotic January night when McCarthy achieved his long-held dream of becoming president. He won the job only after 15 agonizing and embarrassing rounds of voting that laid bare House Republicans’ penchant for lawlessness and McCarthy’s preternatural tolerance for humiliation.
Since then it has been a journey full of obstacles and conflicts, and if McCarthy’s unprecedented overthrow seems sudden and occurs in a matter of hours, it was a long time coming.
The last seeds were sown in the days filled with tension and barter that preceded his ascension.
To claim the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy gave up many powers, giving his enemies an effective veto over critical legislation – such as keeping the government running and preventing a catastrophic government default – and a greater say in committee assignments.
Most critically, McCarthy agreed that a single dissident could trigger a vote on his impeachment, and then spent his entire presidency with that sword hanging precariously over his head.
A more skillful politician or a more skillful legislator would have struggled, but at least they would have survived.
But McCarthy is not so clever.
On Sunday, when it was clear he might need Democratic votes to stay in power, the embattled speaker went on television and blamed Democrats for barely avoiding a government shutdown. The claim was ridiculous and demonstrably false: a small group of House Republicans were entirely responsible for the shutdown threat.
But the timing and motive were particularly baffling; McCarthy’s claim was guaranteed not to win him support from the other side of the aisle.
However, that was only part of the Democratic list of details. Other grievances included the fatuous and evidence-laden impeachment inquiry against President Biden and the censure of California Rep. Adam B. Schiff for helping lead the justified and evidence-laden impeachment trial of President Trump.
There were other, deeper antagonisms.
This spring, McCarthy negotiated a spending deal with the Biden administration to avoid a government default and then, after it passed Congress with bipartisan support, blithely walked away under pressure from Gaetz and others.
In a business where trust is the currency of the kingdom, McCarthy has no currency at all, and that also cost him among Republicans.
A small group of Republican lawmakers, not even close to a majority of the House conference but close enough to remove him, have long viewed McCarthy with suspicion. Too transactional, they say, and not very conservative.
Working with Democrats to suspend the debt ceiling. On Saturday we will once again turn to the Democrats to get the votes necessary to keep the government’s lights on. These cases only confirmed the doubts harbored by his enemies.
“This is a whole new concept of individuals who just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy said as he sought enough Republican votes to keep the government running. “It does not work”.
True, but rich coming from someone who spent years handing out matches and spraying kerosene around the Capitol.
Most infamously, McCarthy made his devil’s deal with former President Trump, admonishing him for the deadly Jan. 6 attack on lawmakers and then irresponsibly showing up at Mar-a-Lago to pledge allegiance to the party’s MAGA wing and its style. destructive of politics. . (And guess who barely raised a finger in public to rescue McCarthy’s sinking presidency?)
Having spent most of his life in politics, McCarthy demonstrated that he would do anything to become a spokesperson.
Kneel before Trump. Suffer multiple, mortifying rounds of voting. Surrender to the dissidents and allow a small group of extremists to weaken their position.
In the end, there was nothing left to save him.