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Kevin McCarthy Stars as Doctor Faust and Brings the House Down

Award-winning staff writer Matteo Cardarelli examines the unenviable political position of newly minted Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy.

With his shiny new promotion to Speaker of the House, I doubt that Kevin McCarthy has much time for reading nowadays. But on the off-chance that he does find a few hours to pick up a book, I vehemently recommend Goethe’s ‘Faust’. The plot is strikingly simple – craving eternal knowledge, the eponymous protagonist strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles (the Devil) who agrees to help him in exchange for his mortal soul. Ring any bells, Kev? McCarthy is no genius scientist, but he has sold his soul nonetheless.

Despite a desultory showing in the midterms, the Republican party (GOP) did not emerge from the ballot box totally empty-handed. Flipping several Democrat seats, (notably with the help of one ‘Anthony Devolder’) it reclaimed control of the House of Representatives and won a narrow nine-seat majority. Yet given the enormous degree of polarisation in the House, nine seats is a slender margin for a majority. In this climate of uncertainty, Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP minority leader for the past four years, stepped up to claim the speaker of the House’s gavel.

No sooner than he had made his intentions clear, the buzzards started to circle ominously above. In the run-up to the vote confirming McCarthy as House speaker, the so-called ‘Never Kevin’ faction of his own party made themselves painfully audible. A melange of hard-right Freedom Caucus members, Tea Party veterans and rookies, this was exactly the kind of fringe faction that could manipulate the majority’s numeric weakness – wielding the threat of defection – to accrue outsized influence.

Its members had a range of reasons for voting against McCarthy, but in some cases the political differences were tinged with personal antipathy. Matt Gaetz, a prominent face of the anti-McCarthy rebels, set the scene by claiming that “every single Republican in Congress knows that Kevin does not actually believe anything. He has no ideology.”

In the days that followed, whatever meagre hopes McCarthy and his supporters may have had of a unifying victory proved tauntingly unfounded. McCarthy came up short in the first round, with eighteen Republicans neglecting to vote for him. He then lost the second by the same margin. In the third and fourth rounds, two of his supporters changed their votes. Before long, it was apparent that Kev’s Big Day had been ruined by bullies crashing the party. 

We were treated to the McCarthy marathon for round after round of voting as his allies scurried from corner to corner of the House floor, desperately trying to tack up the holes in the boat. At one point, there was even talk of party whip Steve Scalise replacing McCarthy as the party establishment’s choice for speaker. It took twelve rounds of voting before McCarthy even managed to overtake Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’ tally. After an unprecedented fifteen rounds, McCarthy’s dream finally came true – but not before an incredibly appropriate grand finale in which one disgruntled McCarthy ally temporarily forgot that he was on the House floor (and not at Wrestlemania), lunging at a rebel before being physically restrained by his colleagues.

McCarthy’s victory provided some answers: it showed that the House Republican Party was, is, and will likely remain a disjointed Frankenstein’s monster, teetering on the brink of spontaneous combustion. There are simply too many doctrinal differences within the party’s ranks for a cohesive movement to emerge. What did McCarthy promise the rebels in exchange for their temporary acquiescence?

That question was partially answered a few days later by the vote over the new House Rules Package. The rebels’ demand for a clause that would allow any single disgruntled Representative to trigger a no-confidence vote in McCarthy was granted, as was their request for the facilitation of investigatory committees. Increasingly, a clearer picture of what McCarthy’s grasping desire for the speakership had cost him came into view.

When the Republican House Committee assignments were, it was no surprise that the rebels had secured choice picks all-around. The Freedom Caucus, the conservative fringe of the GOP, represents only 20% of its total membership. Yet it now accounts for 38% of the Oversight Committee, 44% of the Judiciary and Coronavirus panels, and 50% of the ‘Weaponization of the Federal Government’ select committee. So absolute was McCarthy’s collapse that Gaetz would later recall that he eventually just “ran out of things to ask for.” 

Having enemies inside the gates is a bad thing. And make no mistake, Republican or not, the rebels are McCarthy’s enemies; they changed their votes for political spoils in a highly publicised game of chicken. If they perceive that McCarthy is no longer the pack-mule on whom they can load their vision for the GOP’s future, they will not hesitate to throw a monumental temper tantrum and shatter the party’s fragile consensus. Party leadership will have to continuously pander to their petty wants.

Yet throwing all conventional knowledge out of the window, McCarthy has hedged his bets. His personal desire for power, a feeling he’s undoubtedly cherished in the dark recesses of the Capitol over the last four years, has corrupted his common sense. 

Humiliated in public by his inability to reign in the rebels and discredited even further by the revelation that he caved to their demands, McCarthy should disabuse himself of any latent expectations of legitimacy or respect. Forced to dance to the tune of ‘Never Kevin’, he put on his best Billy Elliot. It’s hard to imagine the music stopping anytime soon. By bowing to the hard right, he has effectively ceded authority over what is nominally ‘his’ party. McCarthy went searching for power: to seize it, he made a deal that not even Faust would accept.

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