If the imminent shutdown of the federal government weren’t at stake, it would almost be worth it to see Speaker Kevin McCarthy reap the consequences of the politics he’s sown. For almost a decade and a half, McCarthy has coddled extremism and rejected reason in various leadership roles for the GOP House caucus, and now those very same bad habits have provoked a shutdown showdown, imperiled his Speakership, and set up a likely electoral drubbing next November.
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
The basic gist of the current political conundrum is that Congress needs to pass a budget to keep the government open for business into the new fiscal year (which starts October 1). With a Democratic Senate and a GOP House, this would already be a thorny task, but it is made much worse by the refusal of a significant minority of GOP representatives to negotiate over anything. This extreme faction wants draconian budget cuts and funding for their reactionary wishlist—not either/or. Some are posturing for the base; some are doing the bidding of the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination who wants to blame a shutdown on Biden, and some of them are really “burn it down” true believers whose hatred of government is only matched by their love of incompetence. But none of them wants to give an inch.
This leaves Kevin Mccarthy in an uncomfortable position as the person responsible for getting legislation through the chamber: He can try to give his members everything they want to get a majority—even if it’s unworkable and contradictory, or he could try to craft a budget that passes muster with the Democratic Senate and President. The first ensures grinding gridlock and a slim chance to save his Speakership; the second probably gets the government open but guarantees that his caucus kicks him to the curb. Both likely result in Republicans getting the blame for whatever goes wrong, because no matter what path McCarthy chooses, something is definitely going to go wrong.
But before you start feeling the tiniest bit of sympathy for sad sack Speaker Kevin McCarthy, it’s worth reminding you, dear reader, that he brought all of this on himself. A former “Young Gun” and Tea Party darling in the immediate backlash to Barack Obama, McCarthy has encouraged Republican intransigence for basically his entire career. In the wake of Obama’s election, he was the recruitment director for Republican candidates, and instead of finding people who could solve problems through policy and good faith, he pumped the party full of ignorant reactionaries who couldn’t legislate their way out of the Congressional lunchroom. As Majority Whip after the 2010 wave elections, McCarthy lined up votes that were popular with the base but had no chance to make it out of conference or to the floor under John Boehner, while barely wrangling majorities for basic government functions. And when the other members of the Young Gun trio fell by the wayside—Eric Cantor in a vicious primary and Paul Ryan as a similarly enfeebled Speaker—McCarthy was happy to step into their slots without thinking too hard about what had led to their demise.
So he’s been humiliated. Repeatedly. First with an historic, 15-round Speaker vote that forced McCarthy to give away everything—including a kill switch on his leadership—in order to bring his tantruming caucus members on board. Then with the public debate over raising the debt ceiling, which he negotiated at just the last moment and ended up with more Democrats than Republicans voting for the final bill. And now, McCarthy faces a battle to avert a government shutdown that he is basically fighting against his own side. Even if he survives this by process of elimination (no one else is going to get a majority of votes), McCarthy’s leadership is the political equivalent of a zombie: a shuffling corpse desperately seeking brains.
It would be the best thing for the country for McCarthy to figure out some way to square the circle of his unhinged caucus because we do need a federal government that, you know, works. But it’s unlikely that McCarthy finds the answer before the pain of a broken and negligent government forces marginal members to come to the table. They’re all too comfortable, too safe in radically gerrymandered districts where the only sin is not hating government enough. And he put them there. After years of making his way to the top on loud politics and empty accomplishments, Kevin McCarthy is going to find out what happens when it all crumbles. The problem isn’t his well-earned demise, but that he’s going to take the rest of us with him.