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As a GOP speaker, Kevin McCarthy did an impossible job badly

Was Kevin McCarthy a bad House speaker or was he put in an impossible position because of his radicalized conference? Ultimately, it was both.


As Tuesday progressed, and it became clear that Kevin McCarthy was poised to lose the speaker’s gavel, there was considerable talk about an unlikely scenario. Perhaps, some of the California Republican’s allies suggested, McCarthy could be ousted only to reclaim his office soon after.

In fact, The Washington Post reported before the voting began in earnest that many House GOP members “vowed to renominate McCarthy to the position and not allow the House to adjourn until he retakes the speakership.”

That was before McCarthy’s ouster. After the vote, as NBC News reported, the former speaker announced that he won’t try to reclaim the office that he lost.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., announced Tuesday night that he won’t seek to reclaim his post as House speaker, hours after he was ousted in a historic vote. “I will not run for speaker again. I’ll have the [Republican] conference pick somebody else,” McCarthy said in remarks to the media after a closed-door meeting with GOP lawmakers.

The congressman has not yet said whether he’ll remain on Capitol Hill.

As the dust settles on the extraordinary circumstances — never before in American history has a sitting House speaker been ousted by his colleagues — one of the lingering questions is the degree to which McCarthy bears responsibility for his downfall. Was he a bad House speaker or was he put in an impossible position because of his radicalized Republican conference?

Ultimately, it was both: McCarthy had an impossible job that he did poorly.

To be sure, the extremism of the contemporary GOP creates enormous challenges for party leaders. Even a capable and competent speaker would’ve struggled over the last 10 months to oversee a conference that doesn’t know how to govern, and doesn’t seem especially interested in learning.

Indeed, it’s no secret that House Republicans haven’t had a successful speaker in generations, and McCarthy joins a long list of recent failures.

But to overlook the ousted speaker’s poor judgment and cringeworthy missteps would be a mistake.

It was McCarthy who made promises he didn’t keep. It was McCarthy who negotiated and agreed to a rules package that tied his hands. It was McCarthy who made contradictory commitments to different factions. It was McCarthy who thought he’d persevere by appeasing the radicals in his midst.

He picked fights he couldn’t win. He failed to count well. He pushed vulnerable members to cast difficult votes for no benefit. He directed his conference to focus on foolish trivialities. He lied to and about Democrats, whose support he eventually needed. He never learned the value of making plans, preferring instead to “wing it” in the hopes of surviving the day, becoming a chess player who only thought one move at a time.

Perhaps most importantly, McCarthy re-embraced Donald Trump, effectively positioning the former president as a party leader adjacent to the speaker’s office, thereby allowing a MAGA vision to steer his conference.

These were his choices, and no one else’s. They were also unwise.