Looking back on the latest Republican disaster, the surprising thing is not that Kevin McCarthy had fallen on his sword — I mean, this sword-falling business is starting to become a GOP tradition — but that so few saw it coming.
Are revolutions really that hard to spot? Maybe someone needs to set up the barricades, because that was the only thing missing.
And yet, John Boehner, his own sword marks still fresh, was somehow shocked when an aide told him that McCarthy — the No. 2 House Republican and Boehner’s pick as his successor — was bailing from the House speaker’s race, just minutes before McCarthy informed the entire Republican caucus.
Even the rebels were surprised. Tim Huelskamp, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the same 40-or-so hard-right conservatives who had first knocked off Boehner and then scared away McCarthy, was angry that McCarthy hadn’t given his team notice that they had won again.
“I just thought that was a very strange way, and a very improper way to treat the entire Republican conference to pull something like that,” Huelskamp told The New Republic. “He left everybody at the altar.”
Yes, that’s the same Freedom Caucus that had voted the day before not to support McCarthy, but to go instead with an obscure backbencher from Florida named Daniel Webster – no, not that Daniel Webster — meaning McCarthy didn’t have the votes to get the job. All McCarthy had to do to get the votes was to agree to a complete surrender — the caucus had already given each of the candidates a set of demands, which would lead to the inevitable government shutdown over defunding Planned Parenthood. No wonder Huelskamp was upset.
Meanwhile, there were GOP congressmen in the crowd so shocked by the latest coup that they were reportedly weeping into their barbecue lunches. I don’t know if McCarthy’s fate is exactly tear-worthy, so we can assume they must have been weeping for what is left of the Republican Party, which, come to think of it, may not be that tear-worthy either.
The Washington Post headline put it this way: “The GOP sinks deeper into chaos. Can it still function as a party?”
That’s not the kind of headline you want to see in the middle of a presidential race, but who could argue with it? “Chaos” was the word of the day from Republicans, although some preferred “disarray.” Rep. Peter King went with two words: “banana” and “republic.”
The problem, as Republicans finally understand, is that the chaos is only going to get worse because chaos seems to be winning. That’s what happens when the only way to win is to threaten your own party with defeat. GOP politicians have long professed to be anti-Washington, but there was usually a winking admission that that just came with the job. This is different. Today, a few dozen politicians can shut down a government and, years later, they yearn for the next one.
And the problem is no longer confined to the House, not when the GOP presidential race is being dominated by real-life non-politicians and politicians who wish they were real-life non-politicians. Predictably, Donald Trump was already claiming credit for the McCarthy coup. Ted Cruz doesn’t have to claim credit. These are his guys, and, if he weren’t too busy being a senator and running for president and touting the last shutdown, he’d be their candidate for speaker. And it can’t be too long before Ben Carson is blaming McCarthy for failing to bring his gun to this sword fight.
The GOP deep thinkers — the same ones who somehow didn’t see that nominating Boehner’s No. 2 wasn’t exactly the way to fight off a revolution — have now decided that Paul Ryan is the only person who can bring the rebels and the establishment together. The problem is that Ryan is too smart to take the job. And if he doesn’t take the job, it’s hard to see who can take it or would want it.
By the way, no one is saying that McCarthy was too smart. His problems began the day he accidentally told the truth about the Benghazi hearings — admitting that their purpose was to weaken Hillary Clinton. It was the kind of gaffe for which McCarthy is well known in Washington.
But he was smart enough to see where things were going. There are 247 Republicans in the House, a remarkable number, but you need 218 of them to win anything against a united Democratic bloc. That includes the speaker’s job. You subtract 40 or so in the Freedom Caucus from 247, and it’s not much of a math problem. And there was more to it than arithmetic. It had gotten ugly, too. Rep. Walter Jones was circulating a letter calling for candidates to withdraw “if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress.”
In explaining to Politico why he had dropped out of the race for speaker, McCarthy said that friends had said to him: “Why do you want to do it during this time? This time will be the worst time. They’re going to eat you and chew you up.”
And someday, when there is a new speaker, you’ll be able to tell him by the teeth marks.
Photo credit: Mark, Creative Commons, Flickr.