To hear Republicans tell it, Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as speaker of the House on Tuesday was all the fault of their Democratic colleagues. “I think today was a political decision by the Democrats,” McCarthy himself said, arguing that the party had hurt “the institution” in a number of ways in recent years. Mike Pence, working hard to move above four percentage points in the ongoing Republican presidential primary, gamely attempted to chime in. “Chaos is never America’s friend,” he said at Georgetown University. “I’m deeply disappointed that a handful of Republicans would partner with all the Democrats in the House to oust the speaker.” Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer concurred, tweeting, “Unbelievable. The Democrats, with the help of Matt Gaetz and a handful of GOP Members, just ousted the Republican Speaker of the House. What a mess.”
This is, I suppose, correct in a mathematical sense. Eight Republicans voted to oust McCarthy. An additional 208 Democrats, for what they would argue were pretty good reasons, similarly withheld their support for the beleaguered speaker. All told, that adds up to a margin of 200, if you are not good at math, or 25 times as many Democratic votes as Republican ones. Sure, that’s a lot! But it’s the eight Republican votes that actually matter here—without them (specifically, without five of them), McCarthy would still be speaker of the House. He didn’t get those votes; he isn’t speaker anymore.
Still, the outpouring of scorn for the Democrats is illuminating. It reveals both a political class and a commentariat that believes that governance is the sole responsibility of the Democrats. It also reveals a near-total ignorance of the politics that led to McCarthy’s ouster.
The biggest problem with the argument that McCarthy’s ouster was the fault of Democrats was that McCarthy never actually tried to get them to save him—in fact, he made a number of eleventh-hour gestures that seemed intended to antagonize his would-be saviors. Dealmaking is a central responsibility of being speaker of the House. It is arguably the central responsibility. But McCarthy never tried to bargain with Democrats. Instead, he treated the opposition party the same way he treated the renegades in his own, by essentially daring them to remove him. It’s possible that McCarthy thought this would work—and it had at various points in the past—allowing him to simply Leroy Jenkins his way into another couple of months with the gavel. It was a preposterous miscalculation.
McCarthy may be more of an institutionalist than whoever replaces him—that may be marginally true if Steve Scalise replaces him and wholly the case if Jim Jordan does. But the institution that McCarthy was presiding over was hardly worth preserving, and there were zero indications that, should he have prevailed, he would have done anything to help strengthen it. Democrats providing the votes necessary to protect him would have essentially been endorsing a ridiculous impeachment inquiry, the stonewalling of the January 6 investigation, the use of the House of Representatives to politically protect Donald Trump, the continued existence of the debt ceiling, and a host of other ills.
Some of the arguments that McCarthy’s downfall was the fault of Democrats seem to have been lodged from Cloudcuckooland. “Instead of siding with sanity, Democrats have decided to side with Gaetz. It’s not a good look,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis. His piece concludes:
There was a “W” waiting for the Dems—a “hanging curveball,” as they say. Had they done the right thing on Tuesday, then going forward, they would have been positioned to basically say, “We’re above culture war bullshit, and would not abide a coup by Matt Gaetz. Nobody asked us to rescue McCarthy, but we did. That’s what responsible leadership does. Remember that the next time the GOP says we’re the problem.” Now they can’t.
The idea that this was an obvious decision to make is absurd, whether you view it from the perspective of raw political wrangling or responsible governance. The notion that this was a looming win for Democrats is pure fantasy. It’s hard to follow the logic here: Voters would reward Democrats for rescuing McCarthy? That is a dubious proposal, one more likely to backfire on Democrats and McCarthy, whose status as a dead man walking wouldn’t have been resolved. Perhaps Lewis missed the part where the proximate cause of the Republican hardliners’ complaint was that McCarthy reached a deal with Democrats on the stopgap funding bill.
But if Democrats were to bail out McCarthy a second time without receiving any concessions in return, that would simply be political malpractice—especially so given that Democrats would have every reason to believe that he would continue to set the House on the same path it has been on since he took over: toward extremism and obstruction. Yes, McCarthy has kept the government open twice. But that is the responsibility of the leader of the majority party. Whoever takes McCarthy’s place will have to clear that bar, regardless of whether they ride into power with the blessing of the Freedom Caucus. At any rate, McCarthy—who voted against certifying the 2020 election and who has done everything in his power to protect Donald Trump—was hardly a defender of “the institution.” Quite the contrary.
What these arguments assume is that the Democratic Party only exists to bail out Republicans from their mistakes and provide a bulwark against their own worst instincts; never to ask for conditions or make demands or participate meaningfully in the policymaking process. They also suggest, absurdly, that Democrats should provide the votes to seat a speaker of a Republican Party that has shown itself to be incapable of governance. This is not how politics works, nor should it be. The House of Representatives is a mess, and two parties have to live there. But it’s a mess of one party’s making. If five institution-minded Republicans want to seat Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries as speaker, let them come forward and claim what I’m sure will be a big political win for themselves.