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OPINION: Kevin McCarthy: A Weak Leader

By Neil Heriot | October 9, 2023

If you have watched the news, you have probably noticed that Kevin McCarthy became the first Speaker of the House of Representatives in American history to be removed from office. At first glance, this seems confusing. McCarthy is a Republican speaker of a Republican majority House, so therefore he should have a majority of votes in his favor and prevent him from being ousted. To understand why he was indeed ousted, I should first bring you up to speed.

We have to start right after the 2022 Midterm elections, where Republicans managed to capture one chamber of congress: the House of Representatives. However, they did so by a much smaller margin than what polls were expecting, with this majority ending up to be no more than five seats. It’s not a working majority unless you are able to keep everyone in line, and if you cannot, an uncomfortably small number of dissenters can ruin everything for the majority party and especially their leadership.

If House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy was confident that he was easily going to become the next Speaker of the House with a loyal Republican caucus that was ready to follow him, he was wrong. Far-right Republican lawmakers best known as the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) rebelled against McCarthy, and they only let him become speaker on the 15th ballot.

This was after McCarthy offered the HFC serious concessions, including, but not limited to, allowing one member of the House to motion to vacate the speakership and to pass strict limits on government spending. McCarthy finally won, but the HFC smelled blood and took advantage of it. Even after they gave McCarthy the speaker's gavel, they knew they had the power and the votes to pressure Speaker McCarthy to fulfill their demands, which is what they did.

I wrote an opinion for the ASP as this was happening. I warned about the power of these troublesome extremist Republicans, and I wrote about my concern that McCarthy had ignored the potential consequences of his actions in order to become speaker. I also cautiously predicted that the HFC would eventually pull a similar stunt like they did with the speaker election, with worse consequences than what happened that time.

I was wrong – at first. McCarthy managed to keep the Republicans behind him and the troublemakers at bay. This showed up in the debt ceiling crisis where McCarthy managed to pass through the House a bill to raise the debt ceiling and also fulfill several Republican priorities that were promised in the election, such as capping government spending, imposing new work requirements, and taking back funding Democrats provided for the Internal Revenue Service (I should note, however, that Republicans had wanted to go further than what they got in the bill).

It showed everyone who was watching several things. First, that the Republican Caucus was not disunited and could get things done. Second, it strengthened the Republicans hand in the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations with the Democrats. Third and final, it showed Republican voters that the promises and goals of the politicians that were promised to the people were being pushed through congress and not simply discarded at the end of the campaign. Yes, the HFC did some grumbling and complaining, but by and large they stayed in line and didn't rebel.

After the crisis was resolved, the right was eager to show everyone the relative success of McCarthy and the Republicans. Indeed, they did have a genuine success story to show America. They could go to the media and say: We, the House Republican Caucus, have managed to get our act together, and stay (relatively) united, fought for what we said we would fight for, and forced the arrogant and unreasonable Democrats to negotiate with us and abandon their awful ideas. It’s certainly a much better picture than: We, the House Republican Caucus, are nothing more than a bunch of fools who can’t elect a speaker, pass legislation, or do just about anything that isn’t fighting each other for everyone to see.

I was glad to see them get their act together. The result from the debt ceiling crisis was the two parties coming together and passing acceptable and necessary legislation. In my previous opinion on this matter, I wrote that the divided government had the potential to check extreme impulses from the other side and force the two sides to come together and pass logical, popular, moderate policies. I still stand by that.

What I don’t stand by, and what has turned my opinion around now, is when a divided government is nothing more than needless obstruction by politicians who want to make themselves look good to their audience. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: voters elected a Republican house to check the Democrats and drag them back to the center. They did not elect the majority so that five Republicans could shut the government down.

We are in this mess today because McCarthy put himself between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, McCarthy was being pressured by the HFC who sought to reduce government spending. On the other hand, McCarthy was also being pressured by Democrats in the House, Senate, and White House who found the HFC’s spending cuts unacceptable. Unfortunately for McCarthy, if he wanted to get anything done, he would have to rely on either the Democrats or the HFC to pass legislation. At the 11th hour, he opted to finally work with the former group on an urgently needed bill to avoid a government shutdown.

The HFC, unsurprisingly, found this unacceptable and revolting, managing to remove McCarthy as speaker thanks to the combination of HFC members and Democrats voting against him. At the time of writing this opinion, Republicans Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan, and Kevin Horn are all running to replace McCarthy. There has even been talk about making former President Donald Trump speaker, as there is no rule that legally obligates the speaker to be an elected member of the House. This leaves the government paralyzed, as nothing can be done if there is no speaker.

What the American people voted for was a Republican House to check and be checked by a Democratic White House and Senate, and to be always ready to work for the American people with each other and make the hard choices that the ideologues would despise but the moderates would celebrate. Now we have a Democratic White House and Senate who are ready to continue working, but a Republican House that shot itself in the foot and does not look like it’s going to fix itself anytime soon.

Part of the reason can be attributed to McCarthy’s deal with the devil (AKA the HFC) and poor leadership. To finally get the speakership, McCarthy fully caved to the HFC and offered them what they wanted (which I elaborated about earlier) as a last ditch attempt to get their votes. He accepted that deal and he finally won the speaker’s gavel, but he clearly did not think hard enough about how that deal could come back to bite him later on.

He never considered that if only one person made the motion to vacate the speakership, that the Republican rebels (who were never fully happy with McCarthy), combined with Democrats (who certainly weren’t happy with McCarthy for visiting Trump post Jan. 6, among other things), were enough to oust him. Instead of taking measures to prevent just one representative using the power to basically doom McCarthy’s speakership, he let that vulnerability remain and suffered the consequences later.

He also failed to read the room after the debt ceiling crisis. Yes, McCarthy won that battle, but the complaints from the HFC showed McCarthy that he was on very thin ice. That gave him two options for the next crisis: either he could double down and work extra hard to placate the HFC, or find ways to outmaneuver them and chip away at their power so the next time they revolted, they would be harmless.

Now admittedly, I will concede in McCarthy’s defense, I’m making it sound easier than it really was. The reality of the situation was that if McCarthy chose placation, he would have likely been blocked by the Democrats in the Senate and President Biden. That meant even with a unified Republican caucus in the House, whatever they managed to pass would have been dead on arrival at the Senate and/or the White House. If McCarthy wanted his legislation to pass Congress and the White House, not just the House, placation wouldn’t work. That left outmaneuvering the HFC, which had the potential to work, but once again, the consequences of McCarthy’s past actions finally struck, and negatively.

In accordance with the ideal divided government, McCarthy should have begun to cultivate relationships with the Democrats and build a professional, if not friendly, rapport. This productive collaboration would have then eliminated extreme legislation and instead passed policies that neither side would have been 100% happy with, but they could accept and tolerate if nothing else.

In addition, McCarthy could have built up back-up Democratic support to replace lost HFC votes and block their attempts to pull any stunts. In this hypothetical scenario, any power the HFC had over McCarthy, even with the one representative needed to make a motion to vacate the speaker, would have been nullified by McCarthy-supporting Republicans and Democrats.

He never considered trying to work with the Democrats unless it was absolutely necessary as a last resort. As a result, both factions remained antagonized by him, and when combined, had the votes to remove McCarthy. Yes, McCarthy had a bad hand when he first sought the speakership, but he played it even worse.

We don’t know who McCarthy’s successor will be, or how he will navigate the pressing challenges. McCarthy bought the government 45 days to resolve the threat of a looming shutdown, which is being wasted each day the House has no speaker. That will likely be the new speaker’s immediate priority.

He will also need to deal with the emboldened HFC, who aren’t going anywhere and could file another motion to vacate the moment they are unhappy. Not to mention, the Democrats are not going anywhere, and they will be sure to take advantage of this chaos every opportunity they can.

I may be more right leaning than the average UAlbany student, and more wishful of the Republican caucus to succeed than most. However, I cannot under any circumstances say that I support a Republican circus that can’t do its job under a weak leader who shot himself in the foot in his quest for the speakership. I can only hope that McCarthy’s successor will be a better leader than McCarthy, and that the extremists will be stripped of their power and eventually stopped. The fate of our country depends on it.

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