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Kevin McCarthy Made Three Big Mistakes—Can He Overcome Them?

McCarthy tried and failed three times to roll the heavy, treasonous GOP ball up Capitol Hill to reach his long-sought role as Speaker.

Kevin McCarthy
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Democrats watched with amazement and glee as California Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy tried three times to roll the heavy, treasonous GOP ball up the Hill, twice failing by 19 votes and finally by 20 votes to reach the 218 needed to ascend to his long-sought role as Speaker.

California Democratic Representative Ted Lieu, with characteristic humor, posted a photograph of himself with a bag of popcorn as he readied to enter the chamber.

Political analyst Jon Ralson tweeted:

“Can't wait to see this go to penalty kicks tomorrow on the House floor.”

Virginia Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly landed a two-fer—before deleting it:

“George Santos on the Speaker’s race: ‘Kevin McCarthy was by my side at Normandy, and I’ll be by his today'.”

As Stephen Colbert quipped on late night television:

“...remember, there’s more important things in life than winning or losing—there’s making fun of Kevin McCarthy for losing.”

Jokes aside, McCarthy is in quite the pickle, so it’s worth asking how a seasoned politico found himself so close to victory but unable to grasp it, and then start gaming out potential post-failure scenarios. McCarthy made three classic mistakes worth discussing first.

Mistake #1: Don’t Negotiate With Political Terrorists

As I wrote about yesterday, the holdouts in the GOP comprise two somewhat overlapping groups: the Freedom Caucus members and the “Never Kevin” extremists. Both have demanded extraordinary concessions in exchange for their votes, including new rules about how to get rid of a Speaker more easily.

McCarthy, sensing that defeat was imminent without their support, began to grant some of these, including bringing the vote requirement for a motion for his own ouster from half of the GOP House members down to just five.

But because these two groups are essentially political terrorists, negotiation never works because all they really want is power or revenge. Knowing they had the upper hand, they predictably pressed even further, coalescing around the idea that McCarthy would simply say or do anything to get their votes and using his own weakness as proof.

McCarthy would have been better off standing his ground; after all, if he gives in to all their demands, he becomes their puppet, living in fear of losing their support and his own job at any time. That would be no victory at all, and if McCarthy had any backbone, he would have understood that.

Mistake #2: Don’t Go In Not Knowing the Outcome

In law, we often say you should never ask a witness a question to which you don’t know the answer. The same rule applies in Congress with voting.

Former White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki summed this up best:

“politics 101 rule—avoid going into a vote not knowing if you have the votes.”

But this is precisely what McCarthy did.

Before yesterday, it was unclear exactly how many votes were arrayed against him, but 19 was unexpectedly high. This meant his own advisers either had failed to accurately predict the votes, or that McCarthy didn’t care and thought he could simply vote and re-vote until they capitulated.

The successive defeats, which grew to 20 against by the third round, demonstrated that McCarthy didn’t have a good read on his own caucus, let alone control. And that spelled disaster.

By contrast, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi was a master vote counter, and her assured leadership and discipline stands in stark contrast to McCarthy’s flailing desperation.

Noted CNN’s Edward-Issac Dovere:

"Coming off the 2020 elections with 222 Democratic seats, Pelosi oversaw 1,127 bills through the House in her final 2 years as Speaker."
"Coming off the 2022 elections with 222 Republican seats, McCarthy is now three rounds in to failing to get enough votes to even be Speaker."

By calling for three votes and failing each time, McCarthy appears instead to be doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result—a popular definition of insanity.

Mistake #3: Don’t Pretend There Isn’t History

McCarthy’s error didn’t begin yesterday. It began years ago when he believed that he could accommodate the extreme right-wing within the GOP tent by giving them greater say and control.

He did this despite having seen them take down two Republican Speakers he had worked with closely—John Boehner and Paul Ryan. He did this despite knowing this group turns on and devours its own, as we are seeing with the feud between Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.

McCarthy’s gift within the GOP is his ability to please the vast majority of his caucus through his affability, generosity of campaign funds, and willingness to work closely with anyone, even Donald Trump, so long as it serves his own political ambitions.

It was why, within weeks of condemning Trump for his responsibility for January 6, McCarthy was off to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the Don’s ring. That may have won him the blessing of Trump and most of the party, but to hard core extremists it felt like pandering—and on this they were absolutely correct.

At the end of the day, Kevin McCarthy has never stood for anything except Kevin McCarthy. And as a result, the extremists have never regarded him as a true ally or respected leader.

They know he will say or do anything to keep himself in power. This means fundamentally that they don’t trust him, and it’s why he’ll likely never gain their support.

So where does this leave the GOP House leadership fight?

McCarthy appears ready to continue his slog, emphasizing on Tuesday night that another path forward is to simply produce more votes for him than there are votes for Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

McCarthy told reporters:

“You’re sitting at 202 votes, so you need technically just 11 more votes to win.”

He explained:

“Democrats have 212 votes. You get 213 votes, and the others don’t say another name, that’s how you can win."
"You can win with 218. You could win with 222."
"But if you want to look at how you have to go about doing it.”

Reading between the lines on this somewhat incoherent statement, McCarthy appears to be arguing that he can convince a number of his detractors to simply vote “present” enabling him to win with just 213 votes, 11 more than he currently has.

But that would still require 11 of the current 20 votes for Ohio Republican Representative Jim Jordan to switch to McCarthy, which already didn’t happen despite two further attempts.

Meanwhile, moderate members of his own party are growing frustrated and are beginning to suggest that they are also willing to play hardball.

GOP Representative Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma said:

“We want Leader McCarthy to be the next speaker of the House, and you have a vast majority of this conference that is unwilling to budge from that position.”

Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska, one of McCarthy’s supporters, echoed this frustration and drew a line.

Bacon stated:

“We’ve done enough.”
“It’s been unilateral concessions on this without getting anything back in return.”

McCarthy can technically continue to call floor votes and drag the process out for days, weeks, or even months.

In the House leadership election of 1855, which was a preview of the chaos in Washington and the civil war to come, it took three months before a compromise was reached when the House finally agreed to a rule change allowing a plurality winner.

We will have to see whether McCarthy’s telephone calls and backroom dealings on Tuesday night result in a shift in the votes.

If the votes start to move his direction, he is likely to press onwards, but if the votes remain stuck or shift even further away, his own caucus could begin to lose confidence, and a compromise candidate, such as second- or third-in-command Republican Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana or Elise Stephanik of NewYork, respectively, could emerge.

Democrats theoretically could also begin to signal support for a moderate alternative, but this isn’t likely to happen unless the GOP so weakens itself that it must go to them for help governing—an outcome the Republican Party could never live down.