Kevin McCarthy's Ambitions Are Going to Take Him to Some Dark Places

Charles Pierce / Esquire
Kevin McCarthy's Ambitions Are Going to Take Him to Some Dark Places Kevin McCarthy. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In order to secure enough votes to become speaker, he will have to make a bargain with more than one devil.

Sometime next week, Kevin McCarthy, an amiable (if largely invertebrate) career politician from Bakersfield, California, will offer himself up as human sacrifice to the barbarian tribes of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.

Remember Richard Harris in the egregious 1970 movie, A Man Called Horse, in which Harris is a British nobleman who joins the Sioux, but not before he completes initiation rites that include being hung up by the thorax with pins? Next week, McCarthy will undergo something similar—except, unlike Harris' John Morgan, McCarthy also will have to listen to Marjorie Taylor Greene. The arrangement is blatantly unconstitutional as a violation of the Eighth Amendment. It's cruel and she's unusual.

You see, McCarthy wants to be speaker of the House of Representatives. Nero didn't want to be emperor as much as McCarthy wants to be speaker. Poisoning his rivals being unavailable as a campaign strategy, McCarthy has determined instead to further poison the political culture. He has already promised endless snipe hunts into everything from the administration's COVID and border policies to Hunter Biden's laptop, soon to replace “But Her Emails” as shorthand for pointless wastes of time, money, and political energy, all of which would be better spent on actual problems. He's even teeing up the January 6 select committee. From the Washington Post:

McCarthy’s letter echoes the desire of many other Republican lawmakers to aggressively go after the Jan. 6 committee, which they have long criticized as a purely political vehicle to attack former president Donald Trump. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — the likely next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — and his staff are already preparing to examine any evidence omitted from the final report that is more flattering or at least exculpatory about Trump’s actions leading up to the Jan. 6 assault, according to one Republican operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe GOP strategy.

Only McCarthy's vestigial conscience can tell him if the gavel is worth his coming humiliation. At the moment, for all his truckling and groveling, he still might not have the votes. Largely through the efforts of the people he's currently placating and the former president* to whom they remain enthralled, the new Republican majority in the House is a slim 10 votes, which means that—assuming no Democrats vote for him, and god help any who do—with six new members already on record as refusing to vote for him, McCarthy is two votes short of what he needs. Since the establishment of the Constitution, only 14 elections for speaker have gone to multiple ballots; the last of them occurred in 1923, the only time it's happened in the years since the Civil War.

I don't think I want to know what McCarthy is going to have to do in order to get the votes he needs. I hope he has a strong thorax.

Frederick Huntington Gillett was a career Republican politician of the old WASP school in Massachusetts: a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law, Gillett did a turn as assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth (God save it!), did a year in the state House of Representatives, and then got elected to Congress, where he served from 1893 to 1925. After leaving the House, he got elected to a single term in the Senate and then died in 1935. But it was in January 1923 that Frederick Huntington Gillett becomes relevant to current events.

Four different political parties sent representatives to the House in the election of 1922. In addition to Republicans and Democrats, two were from the uniquely Minnesotan Farmer-Labor Party; one of them had defeated Andrew Volstead, the Republican whose name had become synonymous with Prohibition; and the other was Socialist Victor Berger of Wisconsin. Everything in politics was rather fluid. The Republicans lost 77 seats, which still left them with a 17-seat majority. The older Republicans were still divided over the 1912 election, and the old Bull Moose hands refused to follow Sen. Robert LaFollette, the putative Republican congressional leader. The anger around bonus payments to veterans of World War I was still raging, and Prohibition, which outlasted Volstead, had everybody furious. In this atmosphere, the House of Representatives met in January of 1923 to elect a Speaker for the upcoming 68th Congress.

Gillett was the incumbent, having served as speaker for the previous two Congresses. But on the first ballot, Gillett received only 197 votes, two more than the Democratic candidate, Finis J. Garrett of Tennessee. Since 212 members didn't vote, no candidate received a majority of the votes of the membership. Enough Republicans opposed Gillett to prevent his election; Gillett was considered the establishment candidate by a rump faction of party rebels. The election for speaker ground on through nine roll calls. Finally, Rep. John Nelson, a Wisconsin Republican, managed to broker a deal. The renegade Republicans would support Gillett if he agreed to certain procedural reforms. Majority Leader Nicholas Longworth, TR's womanizing son-in-law and famous cuckold, agreed to the arrangement and Gillett spent one more term as speaker. Two years later, Gillett was gone and Longworth had replaced him.

It's long since become plain that McCarthy cannot become speaker without a series of devil's bargains with the Republicans who have announced their opposition. The difference between his situation and Gillett's is that the latter was opposed by Republicans who stood for progressive ideas and concrete programs. McCarthy is opposed by Republicans who stand for angry phantoms and internet delusions. Gillett's opponents set as the price for their votes the further democratic reforms to the way the House worked, particularly its committee structures. McCarthy's opponents would rather the House—and therefore representative democracy—not work at all, except for the hunting of snipes and as an audition space for the Fox News Channel. Getting those last five votes means romancing the likes of Andy Biggs and Matt Gaetz. It also may depend on what happens with New York's congressman-elect George Santos, The Man Who Wasn't There.

Being speaker is not worth this. Hell, Nero's ambitions weren't worth this.

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