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It was supposed to be McCarthy’s moment. What happened? : NPR


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks with reporters during a news conference following a GOP caucus meeting at the US Capitol Visitors Center on February 13, 2019 in Washington , DC

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This one had to hurt.

“Maybe the right person for the job of Speaker of the House isn’t someone who’s been selling stock on their own for over a decade to get it,” said Matt Gaetz, the right-wing congressman from Florida, on the floor of the House before nominating Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan to speak before a second ballot on Tuesday.

It was supposed to be Kevin McCarthy’s moment, the one he twisted into political knots to get there.

The California congressman has wanted to be a speaker — badly — for years. He seemed willing to do a lot to get the job, including burying himself in former President Trump’s good graces.

But none of this was enough. Congress adjourned Tuesday without McCarthy — or anyone else — as president after three rounds of voting, the first time the vote has passed one round in 100 years.

The House without a President cannot move forward, no further votes can take place, no legislation can be considered. How this is resolved is an open question – either McCarthy somehow wins over the far-right members who strongly resist him, or he steps aside, paving the way for someone else.

Who it is, however, is also unclear.

This is an untenable position for the country. But how we got here looks like a tragedy in Washington – for McCarthy and for governance.

From Benghazi to Trump

Republicans — and McCarthy — have been here before.

The rise of anti-establishment intransigence within a far-right faction in the GOP can be traced straight back to the Tea Party — and put on steroids by MAGA Trumpism.

In 2010, Republicans rode the Tea Party wave to take control of the House, but the cost was high. The fights over raising the debt ceiling – something that had been routine and protected American credit – and five years of not being able to do anything, even with each other, frustrated John Boehner as than speaker.

At the time, McCarthy was the expected successor. But that effort went off the rails – by itself.

“Everyone thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said on Fox News. “But we have set up a special Benghazi committee, a select committee. What are its numbers today? Its numbers are going down.”


The apparent reason for the GOP investigation in Benghazi was to find out what happened in an attack on a US embassy in Libya, where four people died – not to hurt Clinton. But Clinton, who was secretary of state in the Obama administration, was the frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

McCarthy said the quiet part out loud.

It was a whim. It has been contradicted by Boehner and others. McCarthy had to go back to Fox News and go back.

But the damage was done.

After all, the Speaker of the House, in addition to conducting the business of the House and being a key cog in the process of passing laws that matter to the people, is also a leader in party messaging.

McCarthy, someone already skeptical on the right, was seen as anything but a great messenger for the party.

Come Trump

McCarthy, who was trying to get back into the political spotlight, hitched his wagon to the then-president.

“Where’s Kevin?” Trump said at a luncheon a few days into his presidency. “There’s my Kevin.”

My Kevin.

It was a clear sign that McCarthy had got into Trump’s good graces.

It was supposed to be McCarthy's moment. What happened? : NPR

House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a signing ceremony for HR 266, the Paycheck Protection Program and Better Care Act Health, in the Oval Office of the White House on April 24, 2020 in Washington, DC

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McCarthy knew that Trump — and winning the hard right, of which he is not a founding member — was his path to power.

That’s why McCarthy didn’t believe he could stick to his criticism of Trump after Jan. 6, heading to Trump’s Florida home just weeks after the uprising and posed for a photo with him.

Both men were able to use each other – Trump to normalize what he did on and around January 6; McCarthy for the presidency.

Trump has maintained his power with the base and endorsed dozens of candidates by the 2022 midterms. They did well in the primaries, but many lost in competitive swing districts.

There is a great irony in the fact that if there had been a red wave and the Republicans had won more seats, McCarthy might have had enough votes to win the presidency and would not even be in that position.

For the past seven years, McCarthy has attempted to woo the far-right faction at his conference.

As the speakers vote approached, McCarthy tried everything. He tried to acquiesce to far-right demands – even willing to give the faction the option of removing him from the presidency if they didn’t like the job he was doing.

In the 11th hour, he attempted to play tough guy, threatening the defectors with stripping them of their committee assignments. It seemed to have the opposite effect of what he and his allies intended.

And that was it after years of placating these members and walking a tortured line as GOP Majority Leader to deal with them.

It was supposed to be McCarthy's moment. What happened? : NPR

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a press conference with House Republicans on US-Mexico border policy outside the US Capitol on March 11, 2021 in Washington, D.C.

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But none of that worked. Even Trump failed to defeat the Never Kevins.

One wonders how hard Trump actually tried. On election day, and in the days leading up to it, for example, he didn’t post anything on his social media platform to boost McCarthy.

Despite all of McCarthy’s contortions, backtracking and acquiescence, he’s still missing what he needs to be a speaker, the job he’s wanted for so long.

The hard right have long been skeptical of McCarthy, and he – so far – just doesn’t have their trust.

The question now is – not just for McCarthy but for anyone who is ambitious and has to make choices between what they believe in and what they are willing to compromise – was it worth it?

Ultimately, the speaker’s job is not supposed to be about a person’s ambition, but about what they can do to solve the country’s problems, and this is happening at a time when people are already cynical about intentions. politicians in Washington and what they are trying to accomplish.

Despite all the talk in Washington about “Dems in disarray,” this is yet another example of the chaos that continues to surround House Republicans. With only a majority of four seats, how can they govern if they go through all this just to choose a leader?


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