‘Why deal with someone who can’t be trusted?’: Stanford political experts on the fall of Kevin McCarthy

Oct. 5, 2023, 9:53 p.m.

Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-20) was ousted as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in a historic Tuesday vote, a move that Stanford political experts worry will further destabilize the Republican party and negatively impact bipartisanship.

McCarthy’s rapid fall after years of House Republican leadership demonstrate Washington’s deteriorating ability to govern the nation, experts said. They said that rising political tensions resulted from the increasing drama of politics — often to the detriment of the very actors perpetuating it.

“House Republicans are a majority party in disarray,” wrote Morris Fiorina, a Hoover Institution senior fellow and political science professor, in a statement to The Daily. “With internal divisions on abortion, Ukraine and other issues, and now the rise of a significant performative politics faction more interested in applause from the wingnuts than actually governing, the job of the new Speaker looks damn near impossible.” 

With this chaos, House Republicans are also not helping themselves in advance of the 2024 election, Fiorina said.

Following the 2022 midterm elections, House Republicans took a slim majority in the house, commanding 222 of the chamber’s 435 seats. McCarthy then made several concessions to the farthest right-wing members of his party, like Matt Gaetz (R-FL-1), in exchange for the majority floor vote necessary to become Speaker of the House.

Most dramatically, McCarthy agreed to change the rules on vacating the speaker chair. Previously, vacating the speaker chair required a majority vote by a party caucus, but McCarthy’s change would allow a single member to introduce a motion to vacate the speaker chair. 

McCarthy’s speakership lasted 269 days, during which he directed a highly partisan agenda with few instances of bipartisan legislation. When the government was facing a shutdown late September, McCarthy agreed to pass a bipartisan resolution to temporarily remedy the situation, which was rejected by the most right-wing Republicans.

McCarthy’s career, however, was not the only victim of the continuing resolution to avert a shutdown. The legislation omitted planned aid to Ukraine, a nation that has been fighting a Russian takeover for nearly two years. 

Following McCarthy’s ousting, with the far-right of the House Republican Caucus empowered, Ukraine may find even less support from the U.S. House going forward, McFaul said.

“I do worry about how it might influence aid to Ukraine,” said Michael McFaul ’86, a Freeman Spogli Institute director and professor of international studies. McFaul said he was concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is waiting for the U.S. to “lose interest” in Ukraine, at which point he will claim victory in his war.

McCarthy found enemies on both sides of the aisle. U.S. Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) accused McCarthy of reneging on a June debt-ceiling bipartisan deal with his September legislation. On the other hand, Gaetz castigated McCarthy as “working at the pleasure of the Democrats” and vowed to file a motion to unseat him, a threat Gaetz followed through on Oct. 2. 

Colin Chen ‘06, the director of Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership, wrote to The Daily that McCarthy’s saga as speaker demonstrated “any pretense to bipartisanship on either side seems to have rapidly evaporated.” Chen pointed to Gaetz’s rebellion and House Democrats’ refusal to save McCarthy from the fallout as examples of the dissolution of bipartisanship.

Bruce Cain, director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West and professor of political science, emphasized in a statement to The Daily that all 208 Democrats present in the chamber sided against McCarthy in the 216-210 vote to vacate the House speaker’s chair.

“What is interesting is the Democrats joined in taking him down without much effort to negotiate,” Cain wrote. “McCarthy’s fatal mistake was reneging on his deal with Biden. In politics, breaking your word is a huge mistake, as no one can trust you after that. Why deal with someone who can’t be trusted? A lesson for all would-be politicians in the student body.”

Jed Ngalande '23 is the politics and government beat reporter for The Daily's news section. Contact him at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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