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Hang Your Head

Kevin McCarthy Was the Most Incompetent House Speaker of All Time

The retiring congressman made history—just not in the way he’d hoped.

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

All right, friends. Let’s play Jeopardy!

Forgettable Losers for $200, you say? Very well! The answer is: Theodore Pomeroy and Michael Kerr.

Players? Anyone?

Oh, so sorry. The correct question is, Who are the only two House speakers in U.S. history whose tenures were shorter than Kevin McCarthy’s?

Yes, readers, this is true. Pomeroy, by all accounts a reasonably impressive and quite well-liked politician, was an accidental speaker, serving for only one day in 1869, as a kind of bouquet thrown to the retiring New Yorker by his admiring colleagues. Kerr’s speakership ended in 1876 after a mere 258 days, but not because of scandal or weakness. Rather, he up and died in office, at the tender age of 49.

So you can put asterisks next to both of those, if you ask me. Which leaves McCarthy, at 270 days, as the shortest-serving House speaker in American history owing solely to his own incompetence, ineffectiveness, and emptiness.

For what will history remember Kevin McCarthy? A few things. But let’s not complicate matters. First and foremost, and by far, he will go down in history for that photograph. You know the one I mean. The Mar-a-Lago one, standing next to Donald Trump. It was a week after Trump’s presidency ended in January 2021, and three weeks and a day after McCarthy got into a screaming match with Trump over the phone on January 6, about the rioters Trump had sent Hill-ward to hang Mike Pence. Your insurrectionists, McCarthy said, were “trying to fucking kill me.” Trump retorted: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”

Here’s what the photo symbolizes. McCarthy was furious at Trump on January 6. “I’ve had it with this guy,” he said shortly afterward, in a taped call famously obtained by two New York Times reporters. He was steeling himself to call on Trump to resign.

Then something changed. We don’t know exactly what. He started talking to his GOP colleagues. They cautioned against confronting Trump. And soon enough, he was on a plane down to Florida. He later complained that he “didn’t know they were going to take a picture.” Well, look at it. It sure looks like he knows a picture is being taken.

Could McCarthy have single-handedly moved the Republican Party into a post-Trump world? Let’s not be naïve. He could not have. Trump would still be contesting for control of the GOP. But maybe, just maybe, McCarthy—who was, after all, the leader of the House Republican conference and the minority leader of the House of Representatives—could have started something.

Maybe, if McCarthy had stuck with his anti-Trump position, others would have been emboldened to join him. Maybe that group would have gained the backing of a few GOP senators. Bill Barr would have joined them, and John Kelly, and a number of other prominent Republicans. And they could have coalesced around a still-conservative but non-MAGA potential candidate, and instead of the coronation we are watching today, we’d be watching an actual fight—maybe not a particularly close one, but a fight all the same—for the “soul” (if they can be said to have such a thing anymore) of the Republican Party.

But no. Shortly after Joe Biden’s inauguration, McCarthy had decided: He had to stay leader. He had to be speaker one day. And that meant staying with Trump. And that’s what history will remember about him. He was the one man—even more than the superannuated Mitch McConnell—who could have defied Trump. He deified him instead. And if Trump wins next fall and returns to the White House and does all the things he promises he’s going to do, and future historians are one day compiling a list of those complicit in the collapse of American democracy, Kevin McCarthy’s name will be in the top 10 on that list, and maybe the top five.

There are a couple other things he’ll be remembered for. That joke of a speakership vote. Finally elected on the fifteenth ballot. It was so obvious that his colleagues did not respect him. And so obvious that he was desperate for their approval—so desperate that he handed them the tool, the famous one-person motion to vacate, that sealed his fate from the day he was handed the gavel.

And finally there is the utter lack of achievement in behalf of the American people that he oversaw. The week before McCarthy was ousted as speaker, one study found that the current Congress had enacted into law only 12 bills—a full 40 fewer than your average Congress going back to 1973. The House had passed 224 bills, which sounds respectable, but that was actually the second-lowest number in the last 50 years. That ignominious record was held by the 113th Congress, also a Republican House, obsessed with tying Barack Obama in knots and making sure that he could not, for example, raise the minimum wage.

McCarthy’s pulverizing failure as a legislative leader stems from two truths: One, he cared little about policy; two, his word was no good. He’d say anything to anyone. If you’ve read enough political biographies, you know that “he was always as good as his word” is a common form of high praise that can be delivered across partisan lines. McCarthy was as useless and malleable as his word.

So off he goes, back to Bakersfield as the new year dawns, or more likely off to K Street. Because that too is now expected of people like McCarthy—to go cash in on one of those lavish lobbyists’ salaries. And then, if Trump wins, maybe he’ll join the administration. Then, with luck, we’ll all get to watch him be indicted and convicted. Something tells me God is not finished with Kevin McCarthy.