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Kevin McCarthy is stuck in a nightmare of his own making

There’s plenty of blame to go around for this week's partisan catastrophe, but Kevin McCarthy should probably start with the man he sees in the mirror.


As House members left Capitol Hill yesterday, they’d endured a rather ridiculous day. Over the course of roughly eight hours, representatives-elect — they still haven’t been sworn in — voted five times for speaker, bringing the new total for the week to 11. Each of the tallies were effectively identical, and none brought House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy closer to the gavel he’s so desperate to hold.

As the process drags on in ways unseen since 1859, it seems inevitable that the California Republican has asked himself, likely more than once, how it is that his House Republican conference became so broken.

And while there’s plenty of blame to go around for the partisan catastrophe, as McCarthy takes stock, he should probably start with the man he sees in the mirror.

In a week filled with head-shaking political mishegas, The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg wrote a column that stood out for me as important.

Kevin McCarthy nurtured the spirit of reactionary nihilism in the Republican Party, first by trying to harness the energy of the Tea Party for his own ambition, and then by his near-total capitulation to Donald Trump. ... McCarthy’s approach to the far right has always been one of indulgence.

Or as my MSNBC colleague Michael Cohen summarized yesterday, “Kevin McCarthy did this to himself.”

The evidence is overwhelming. By way of his leadership post, McCarthy recruited radicals. And raised money for radicals. And co-opted radicals. And campaigned for radicals. And empowered radicals. And excused radicals, even as their extremism and hostility toward democracy became dangerous.

He did so, not because he necessarily agreed with them — McCarthy has few core beliefs or deeply held principles — but because the Republican leader believed they could help him advance his own personal ambitions.

With this in mind, McCarthy encouraged too many of his most outlandish members to embrace an untenable political vision, free of compromises or concessions. Right-wing GOP lawmakers were effectively told they didn’t have to respect the legitimacy of competing ideas or constituencies. They could value posturing over policy, performative displays over governing.

They learned well — and have spent the last few days implementing the lessons.

Instead of reining in extremists, McCarthy allowed extremism to flourish unchecked, all while signaling weakness — his trip to Mar-a-Lago, where he kissed Donald Trump’s ring in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack remains indefensible — in ways his members couldn’t help but notice.

Obviously, the House Republican conference has descended into chaos, unable to complete one of its easier tasks. But when assigning responsibility for the breakdown, start with the leader who’s disappointed to realize he’s reaping what he’s sowed.