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Kevin McCarthy’s Speaker War Proves the GOP Is Broken

President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with attendees at the 2019 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Image by Gage Skidmore.
President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with attendees at the 2019 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Image by Gage Skidmore.

Kevin McCarthy’s Struggle to Be Speaker and the GOP’s Turn against Governance – After two days and six votes for Speaker of the US House of Representatives, it seems increasingly unlikely that Representative Kevin McCarthy (CA-22) will attain that position.

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Republican defectors – mostly from the ‘Freedom Caucus’ – have not budged in their resistance. McCarthy has made some concessions to them, but it appears that much of their resistance is both ideological and personal.

That is, there is distrust that McCarthy is an establishment Republican who does not share the more aggressive priorities of the House’ right wing. McCarthy is also too opportunistic and protean for them.

How McCarthy Might Still Win

McCarthy might still pull it out. But the measures to do so would be extraordinary.

First, he could capitulate to even more of the right’s demands, but that would cripple his speakership from the start. Both previous Republican Speakers of the House suffered from this problem. Both John Boehner – speaker from 2011 to 2015 – and Paul Ryan – speaker from 2015 to 2019 – could not control their party’s right-wing and quit the House Republican leadership because of it.

Another option would be to align with some Democrats in the House to provide him with the necessary votes. There are 435 representatives in the House, so he needs 218 votes to win. That means he needs around twenty Democratic votes. Democrats would surely provide those votes in exchange for concessions – on, for example, the debt ceiling or committee assignments.

But this stratagem would open McCarthy to a wide-ranging rightist critique, especially in the densely interwoven ecosphere of right-wing media. Other conservative Republicans might defect along with the Freedom Caucus, forcing McCarthy to lean more heavily on the Democrats. The last major GOP initiative to do that was George W. Bush’s 1990 tax hike with the help of House Democrats. That helped ignite the revolt of Newt Gingrich and his House allies which lead Bush’s defeat in 1992 and the much more conservative Republican House of the 1994 ‘revolution.’

McCarthy surely wants to avoid such an outcome, which casts him in the role of the moderate Bush to pushed aside by rising conservatives truer to faith. And that backlash would be all the sharper given right-wing media today, which did not exist in the early 1990s. 

The Republican Right’s Turn 

The Gingrich revolution started the GOP down the path to today’s position where hardline intransigence makes it nearly impossible for the party to govern. It can win elections, especially in the Congress. But the forces of principle-over-compromise unleashed by Gingrich, groomed by right-wing media (most obviously Fox), and embraced by former President Donald Trump make it hard for the party to share power or engage in compromise with its opponents. 

Many others have noted this problem. As the conservative movement took over the Republican party, it elevated its values to level of first principles which could not be negotiated.

The Democrats became not just opponents but enemies.

Taxation became assaults on freedom, not the requirement of government to function.

Compromise became betrayal.

Gingrich and his successors increasingly resorted to extreme tactics – shutting down the US government, debt ceiling stand-offs, impeachment – to force GOP preferences on a plural, diverse country which frequently did not share them, as evidenced by regular divided government. The result has been an increasing turn against governance itself by the far right.

Right-wing media, of course, carries much of the blame. For decades, going back to Rush Limbaugh, it has excited the most extreme elements of the right-wing coalition and demanded the GOP ‘fight.’ When I worked for a Republican congressman in the 1990s, part of my job in the field was to keep quacks and cranks – complaining about black helicopters and a UN takeover was the conspiracy du jour – away from the congressman.

Today, conspiracism is acceptable in right-wing media. QAnon, birtherism, anti-vaxxism, and so on have gone mainstream, helped considerably by Trump who routinely flirts with this material. No less than Ron DeSantis – supposedly the moderate, professionalized version of Trump – has refused to embrace vaccination, a position which just a few years ago – before the covid pandemic – was a grossly illegitimate outlier.

With this extremism and empirical detachment has come a refusal compromise, a resentment at the normal give-and-take required for practical government in a large, diverse, far-flung country. Fox News, Breitbart, InfoWars, and rest make difficult for Republican congresspeople to cut bipartisan deals because of the intense media coverage and threat of a primary challenge from the right.

This accumulated history is now undercutting McCarthy’s bid for the speakership. McCarthy is neither an ideologue nor a conspiracy theorist. He is an establishment Republican comfortable with its donor class and pre-Trump ideological commitments. Yet like Boehner and Ryan before him, he faces an increasingly radicalized, self-absorbed right-wing.

Isolated from the rest of the country by a self-reinforcing media-ideological bubble, drenched in conspiracy theories, and disinterested in compromise for the sake of governance, GOP hardliners have few incentives to compromise. They are giving their voting and media constituencies what they want. So much so, remarkably, that even Trump’s endorsement of McCarthy cannot move them.

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Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly ( is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.