Monday, July 15, 2024

Column: McCarthy’s fall was sudden, but a long time coming

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“How did you go bankrupt?” a character asks in one of Ernest Hemingway’s classic novels. “Gradually,” was the famous response. “Then suddenly.”

And so it is for the politically and morally bankrupt Kevin McCarthy.

On Tuesday, he was voted out of his job as House speaker — a first in the nation’s history — in a summary execution induced by a small band of far-right Republicans, who were gladly aided and abetted by vengeance-minded Democrats.

The moment, for all its drama, seemed ordained from the instant McCarthy barely won the position.

Power and responsibility didn’t remold the man, or summon deep reserves of character and wisdom. There is a hollowness at McCarthy’s core, which 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 policy. He never exhibited a deep-seated set of beliefs, beyond what it took to win an election. Rather, McCarthy’s engine was his personal ambition. His principles were just another chip to be tossed onto the table in negotiations.

As a result, the Bakersfield Republican has ended up the proverbial man without a country, or in his case, a sustaining constituency.

Democrats hate him. So, too, do those nihilist Republicans led by McCarthy’s archnemesis, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who gleefully filed the resolution to vacate the speakership, as the process is known.

A comparison with McCarthy’s immediate predecessor as speaker is instructive.

Nancy Pelosi and McCarthy both hail from 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 corralling fractious members. But the San Francisco Democrat is legislatively savvy, and possesses a bone-deep set of convictions and a mastery of the materials in front of her.

While McCarthy has never been “into the weeds in what a bill says or having a specific policy interest,” Pelosi knew the bottom line of individual lawmakers, the content of legislation and “how to make legislative compromises,” said Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University and expert on the speakership.

(It helped greatly, of course, that Pelosi’s Democratic colleagues actually wanted to get things done.)

“So, it’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s make a deal,’” Green said. “It’s like, ‘OK, I understand where you’re coming from. Let’s see how we can bridge the differences between different groups in our party.’”

For fans of deja vu, the scene Tuesday — anger, recrimination, members watching wide-eyed on a crowded House floor — recalled the chaotic night in January when McCarthy achieved his long-held dream of becoming speaker. He won the job only after 15 agonized and embarrassing rounds of voting that laid bare House Republicans’ penchant for anarchy and McCarthy’s preternatural tolerance for humiliation.

It has been a bumpy and strife-filled ride ever since, and if McCarthy’s unprecedented overthrow seems sudden, happening in a matter of hours, it was long in coming.

The final seeds were sown in the tension- and barter-filled days leading to his ascension.

To claim the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy surrendered a good many powers, giving his foes an effective veto over critical legislation — like keeping the government up and running and avoiding a cataclysmic government default — and a bigger say in committee assignments.

More critically, McCarthy agreed that a sole dissident could trigger a vote on his removal, and then spent the entirety of his speakership with that sword hanging precariously overhead.

A more deft politician or skilled legislator might have struggled, but at least survived.

But McCarthy is not that astute.

On Sunday, when it was evident he might need Democratic votes to stay on, the beleaguered speaker went on television and blamed Democrats for barely averting a government shutdown. The claim was laughable and demonstrably false — a rump group of House Republicans was wholly responsible for the threatened closure.

But the timing and motive were particularly puzzling; McCarthy’s assertion was guaranteed to win him no support from across the aisle.

However, that was only a part of the Democratic bill of particulars. Other grievances included the fatuous, evidence-lacking impeachment inquiry of President Biden and the censure of California Rep. Adam B. Schiff for helping lead the warranted, evidence-laden impeachment 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 from it under pressure from Gaetz and others.

In a business where trust is the coin of the realm, McCarthy holds no currency — and that cost him among Republicans as well.

A small group of GOP lawmakers, nowhere near a majority of the House conference but sufficient to take him out, has long viewed McCarthy with suspicion. Too transactional, they say, and not a genuine conservative.

The work with Democrats to suspend the debt ceiling. Turning again to Democrats on Saturday to get the votes needed to keep the government’s lights on. Those instances only confirmed the doubts harbored by his enemies.

“This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down,” McCarthy said as he grasped for enough GOP votes to keep the government operating. “It doesn’t work.”

True, but rich coming from someone who spent years passing out matches and sprinkling kerosene around the Capitol.

Most infamously, McCarthy made his devil’s bargain with former President Trump, admonishing him for the deadly Jan. 6 attack on lawmakers, then fecklessly showing up at Mar-a-Lago to pledge his fealty to the party’s MAGA wing and its destructive brand of politics. (And guess who barely lifted a finger in public to rescue McCarthy’s sinking speakership?)

Having spent most of his life in politics, McCarthy showed he would do anything it took to become speaker.

Kneel before Trump. Suffer through multiple, mortifying rounds of balloting. Surrender to dissidents and allow a small group of extremists to debilitate his office.

In the end, there was nothing left to save him.

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