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Kevin McCarthy did this to himself

Throughout his 16 years in Congress, he has worn his political ambitions on his sleeve.

It’s still an open question as to who will be the next speaker of the House of Representatives, but no matter who wins, one thing is for certain: Kevin McCarthy will lose.

If not for the fact that there is no viable alternative who could unite House Republicans, McCarthy, R-Calif., would already be toast. He’s now lost six consecutive ballots in the House, and his vote count has actually decreased (albeit slightly). But armed with 90% support from his caucus and a seemingly limitless thirst for public humiliation, McCarthy soldiers on. 

If there is one clear takeaway from this week's melodrama, it’s that McCarthy has no control over the House GOP caucus.

At some point, one has to imagine that House Republicans will tire of this charade and look for an alternative choice. But with no obvious candidate on the horizon, it could take hours, days or even weeks for that to happen. Every potential name floated brings with it a hefty set of luggage.

McCarthy’s No. 2, Louisiana’s Steve Scalise, might seem an obvious choice, but he is a member of the House leadership, which is viewed with such disdain by the anti-McCarthy rebels. Plus, a representative who once dubbed himself “David Duke without the baggage” might not be the ideal choice for Republican representatives from blue states like New York, New Jersey and California. House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York garners little trust within the caucus, as well. And the names floated by the insurgents, like Ohio's Jim Jordan and Florida's Byron Donalds, may be too extreme for the rest of the caucus. (And in the case of Jordan, who is poised to chair the Judiciary Committee, it’s hard to see why he would want the job.)

So McCarthy, for all his many flaws, might still be the one to prevail — as crazy as that might seem.

But if he wins, what will he have gained?

If there is one clear takeaway from this week's melodrama, it’s that McCarthy has no control over the House GOP caucus. He instills no fear and little respect among his colleagues. 

While it’s not impossible to have sympathy for any political leader facing the reactionary extremists of the GOP’s far-right bloc, McCarthy made his bed. Throughout his 16 years in Congress, he has worn his political ambitions on his sleeve. He isn’t associated with any notable policy objectives, unlike Paul Ryan or Newt Gingrich. In a party that demands orthodoxy, his politics are malleable and transactional. He isn’t a leader who projects confidence or ideological consistency but rather a follower of the prevailing political winds. 

At this point, it’s worth asking why McCarthy would even want the job.

Nowhere was that truer than during the Jan. 6 insurrection and its aftermath. McCarthy’s life and the lives of his staff members were threatened by the mob that invaded the Capitol that day. His pleas to then-President Donald Trump to call off his supporters fell on deaf ears. “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump unfeelingly told him.

And yet that didn’t stop McCarthy from soon venturing to Mar-a-Lago to prostrate himself before the disgraced former president.  McCarthy’s eyes always remained focused on one prize — his ambition to be speaker. 

That’s why, when faced with an insurgency within his ranks after the midterm elections, McCarthy tried to negotiate his way out of the problem. In his world, everyone has a price. But even though he’s had a front row seat for years and years as the GOP has descended ever further into the fever swamp, McCarthy never appeared to realize that nothing he could offer would pacify the rebels. By seeking to negotiate and making concessions that went unreciprocated, he only magnified his obvious and unmistakable weakness. Every further House ballot that has him finishing behind the Democratic nominee, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, is yet another reminder that McCarthy doesn’t have the juice to be a leader.

Besides, even if McCarthy somehow wins the speakership, the No. 1 job of a legislative leader is to muster votes. If McCarthy already can’t follow through on this first and most basic task, how is he going to do it when there are real and substantive issues at stake — like appropriation bills and the looming debt limit? Maybe the insurgents give in after more concessions, but the message will be that everything is negotiable and that McCarthy can be pressured. If he prevails, the next two years will pivot from crisis to crisis: government shutdowns and debt limit crises, not to mention constant no-confidence votes from recalcitrant Republicans. Nothing will get done. And McCarthy, who is already a figure of pity rather than scorn, will be further reduced in the eyes of his colleagues and the electorate. 

At this point, it’s worth asking why McCarthy would even want the job. Better to step aside and save himself — and the country — from this ever-growing mess. But considering McCarthy’s singular ambition in life is to be speaker of the House, he has no Plan B, either. And so the drama on Capitol Hill appears to have no end in sight.