Washington D.C. is vacillating between theatricality and self-awareness this week, and we mortals are left to figure out what in the world is going on.
Kevin McCarthy, the number two House Republican, shocked the country by pulling out of the race for the House Speakership yesterday. He was the heir apparent: There was not supposed to be any serious challenger. He was the favored candidate of outgoing Speaker John Boehner. The House Republican meeting to elect their candidate for Speaker was supposed to be a formality. And once McCarthy was nominated by the Republican majority for the Speaker’s gavel, the full vote of the House was supposed to be a formality too.
Kevin McCarthy was going to be one of the three most powerful people in America, and nobody was going to stop him.
Kevin McCarthy quit minutes before the Republicans gathered to vote. And politicians of his caliber don’t normally get cold feet.
What exactly is going on in Washington? Everybody is talking about how much chaos the Republicans are in, and given that they can’t find a single person who both can and wants to be nominated for the Speaker job, I have to admit that the situation is hardly optimal. But it’s hard to tell how much of the chaos is actually intractable and how much is just McCarthy’s flair for the dramatic.
As I said, politicians of McCarthy’s caliber don’t normally get cold feet. McCarthy likely made the decision well before he made the announcement, and timed his announcement for maximum chaos. Information is king in Washington, and the reaction by both Representatives and journalists strongly indicates that McCarthy kept a heavy lid on the story. McCarthy captured the House in one of the rare periods where nobody knew anything. And considering that Congress is a body that prides itself on being in the know and in control, chaos was only to be expected.
The public will likely never know the full story of the McCarthy withdrawal – at least for a long while. It is often said that journalists only know 30 percent of anything. I think good journalists know considerably more than that, but as a college student three thousand miles away from Washington, I think I should be humble about this. We’re not in the smoke-filled rooms where decisions are made. I personally don’t know Kevin McCarthy at all. I do know a guy who works for McCarthy, but if he told me the truth, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. In short, I acknowledge that journalism has its limitations.
But we can know a few things for sure, and the rest boils down to one key question:
Could Kevin McCarthy get elected Speaker of the House?
In the press conference following his withdrawal announcement, McCarthy claimed that he had enough votes, but just enough – the kind of weakness that would make him functionally dependent on right-wing House Freedom Caucus members in the coming two years. He admitted that he didn’t want to get elected with 220 votes (the magic number is 218). He still claimed he would have been Speaker if he’d tried.
Later, Representative Darrell Issa claimed that McCarthy did not have the votes. We are already in a he-said she-said situation, and as I write, it’s just several hours since the announcement.
If McCarthy couldn’t get elected, then what he’s done is the best thing he could possibly do: chaos causes people to gravitate towards the center, and the conservative-but-not-Freedom Caucus McCarthy represents the Republican center. Whether or not McCarthy could get elected, this decision screams “bold attempt at a masterstroke.” McCarthy is basically saying, “You don’t want me? Let’s see how you do without me.”
And how would the Republicans do without McCarthy? It’s much, much harder than it sounds. The fact of the matter is that McCarthy is one of the few people who can command a House plurality. And nothing gets done in the House without a plurality.
Regardless of what you think about the Freedom Caucus, it’s clear that it is 40 Republicans in a caucus of 247, a caucus with a 59-seat majority. The Caucus has been comfortable in their zone of quasi-opposition, but what happens if McCarthy dares them to get in the driver’s seat? They can’t vote down McCarthy in the Republican caucus. Once McCarthy is nominated, if the Freedom Caucus abstains, McCarthy will win anyway. (Furiously complicating this fact is that by tradition, a Speaker can only be elected by an absolute majority, and NOT a plurality, of votes cast.) If they try to gum up the works and delay for the sake of delaying, John Boehner remains Speaker. And if they start voting with the Democrats purely to spite the other Republicans, well…bye, Felicia.
In other words: In the long run, as long as no credible candidate for Speaker emerges, the House will gravitate to Kevin McCarthy, whether or not he has the votes right now.
But if McCarthy could have gotten elected today, I’m not sure he made the smart decision. If he’s truly right when he says that he could eke out a victory in the full House leadership election by a couple votes, then it would take a lot of guts to turn the job down. The Speaker’s gavel comes with tremendous power, the extent of which a lot of Americans do not really understand – from legislative influence to patronage to influence over the very bills that come to the floor of the House.
As soon as a representative becomes Speaker, that representative gains massive amounts of leverage. And even if the Speaker was elected by a narrow majority and his/her caucus is fractured in the House, that leverage will begin solidifying the Speaker’s seat from day one. Though he resigned, Boehner could have survived as long as he wanted – what would the Freedom Caucus really have done, vote for a Democrat? Give Nancy Pelosi the keys to the Ferrari?
In other words, if McCarthy is telling the truth (and I’m inclined to believe him) – that he could scrape through a Speaker election with a small majority – then he’s taking a big risk. But McCarthy doesn’t just want to lead, he wants to govern. John Boehner resigned because he felt he could not govern, even if his job was safe. And like Boehner, McCarthy believes that the title of Speaker is pointless without the authority that the Speaker has historically wielded. McCarthy is making a power play of staggering scope, betting that he is so powerful among the Republican mainstream that nobody will step up to unite the Republicans in the meantime.
Electable or not, I am impressed by McCarthy’s chutzpah. Just as important, he’s still remaining House majority leader…once the Freedom Caucus relents, he will be waiting in the wings. We might have to wait a while to find out who will be the future of the Republican Party, but Kevin McCarthy has all the time in the world.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.