An appeaser, as Winston Churchill memorably suggested, is someone who feeds a crocodile in hopes that it will eat him last.
It was inevitable that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., would be swallowed whole by the small minority of far-right extremists he had done so much to empower, including by changing the rules in a way that effectively gave any one of them the power to call a snap vote to remove him.
What is tragic is the degree to which, in the actions he took to get the job and in the nine months he managed to hold it, McCarthy damaged the House as an institution and debased the speakership itself. That will be the legacy he leaves when his portrait joins the others, starting with Henry Clay, that line the wall of the ornate Speaker’s Lobby just outside the House chamber.
“The power of the speaker is to set the agenda,” McCarthy’s formidable predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., once said. “The power of the speaker is awesome. Awesome.”
But exercising that power requires a clarity of purpose that goes beyond one’s own ambition — something McCarthy never possessed. In last year’s midterm campaign, which saw his party positioned within striking distance of regaining the majority, McCarthy unveiled what he called the House Republicans’ “Commitment to America.”
It claimed to be a blueprint for governing, echoing the GOP’s storied 1994 “Contract With America,” but it was merely a one-page list of slogans, such as “curb wasteful government spending” and “fight inflation and lower the cost of living.”
That Republicans couldn’t coalesce behind something more substantive than that was a sign of trouble ahead.
Sure, the job that McCarthy took 15 ballots to win came with a high degree of difficulty: a paper-thin majority, a deeply polarized political climate and the unwise commitments he had made to a small band of radicals who had the power to unseat him. Those concessions never won him anything more than a deepening contempt on their part.
In today’s world, the speaker no longer holds the leverage to reward allies and punish enemies by controlling which members wield power — through choice committee assignments, campaign contributions and the like. Now, even the most junior member with a sizable social media following and a willingness to say outrageous things on cable television can raise money and build a power base of his or her own.
There was a time when most Americans probably couldn’t have told you who the current speaker — say, Carl Albert or John McCormack — was; the job went to an inside operator in what appeared to be a permanent majority. Now, however, the speaker is both well-known and without any job security. Six of the seven who preceded McCarthy were forced by scandal or political setback to relinquish the gavel.
Still, McCarthy’s leadership — if you can call it leadership — was notably rudderless and chaotic. On his watch, the country came to the brink of what could have been a catastrophic default on its debt. His hard-right members regularly humiliated him by blocking vital GOP-backed measures from even coming to a vote on the House floor — among them, recently, one to fund the Pentagon. It was only with the help of Democrats that he managed to muster enough votes Saturday to prevent a government shutdown.
And yet, he continued to try to appease the hard-liners, including by unilaterally opening an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden based on allegations — but no evidence — that the president had benefited from the business dealings of his son Hunter.
In a grievance-filled news conference after he announced his decision not to try to get his job back, McCarthy said, with dark humor: “I made history, didn’t I?” Indeed, he has left a mark — a scar on the institution and the office — that will be hard to erase.
So now comes the search for a replacement. The only safe prediction at this point seems to be that the process will be an ugly one. During the debate over whether to remove McCarthy, Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., declared that McCarthy had never seemed to stand on any principle but his own ambition. “We need a speaker,” Good said, “ideally, someone who doesn’t want to be speaker.”
Given the wreckage of McCarthy’s brief tenure, it seems fair to ask: What sane person would?
Karen Tumulty is a deputy opinion editor and columnist covering national politics for The Washington Post.