Analysis | Kevin McCarthy, a divided Republican Party and the curse of Jan. 6

No one could have written a more dramatic script for the final hours of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s long quest to become speaker of the House. The last act alone came with crushing disappointment, ultimate elation and, in between flashes of treachery, incompetence and a threat of a fistfight. The Republican Party was left frozen in its own divisions in full view of the American people.

It seemed almost too ironic that this made-for-television drama played out on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, in which followers of President Donald Trump sought to block certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. The entire four days and the 15 ballots that finally resulted in McCarthy’s victory underscored how little the Republican Party has absorbed the full implications of how costly that dark day has been to them.

That it took McCarthy so much effort to win the speakership is a direct reflection of how Jan. 6 influenced what happened two months ago in the midterm elections, when House Republicans fell far short of their expectations and McCarthy was left to scratch for votes in a conference with the slimmest of majorities.

Analysis | Kevin McCarthy, a divided Republican Party and the curse of Jan. 6

The Republican Party fell short in November because too many Americans, especially independent voters, decided they were reluctant to hand too much power to the party of Jan. 6 the party of election deniers and the party of Trump acolytes. Instead of a comfortable majority, McCarthy was left with a margin that empowered the radical fringe of his party to hold the speakership hostage until McCarthy and his allies had made concession after concession.

Sadly, the struggle that played out as riveting television Friday night and into Saturday morning is likely to be repeated in the coming two years, to the detriment not just of the Republican Party but also the entire nation. In their week of stalemate, Republicans seemed oblivious to the forces that left McCarthy in such a precarious position.

Yet they only had themselves to blame. Even after the attack on the Capitol, a majority of House Republicans sought to challenge the results in the electoral college. Trump’s continuing lies about a stolen election infected the party’s rank and file. A majority of people who identify themselves as Republicans still say they do not believe President Biden was legitimately elected in 2020.

Following Trump’s lead, election deniers sprang up around the country, seeking office at every level. Many of the most high-profile among them lost their races, but by the count of The Washington Post’s Amy Gardner, there are 175 House Republicans who have in some way or another or at some time or another embraced Trump’s baseless claims about 2020. Some of the central players in the battle for House speaker were in the thick of efforts to overturn the election, as documented by the final report of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

McCarthy had an opportunity to distance himself and his party from the mayhem of the former president. For a brief moment, he condemned Trump, only to pay penance with a visit to Mar-a-Lago and continuing obeisance to Trump in the two years since. Had he sought to move his party away from election denialism, Republicans might have done better in November and he could have done what every other speaker in the last century had done, which was to win on a single ballot.

House Republicans sought both to ignore and dismiss the work of the Jan. 6 committee. Many Americans, however, did not look away from the committee’s work. When Biden labeled much of the Republican Party as “extreme MAGA Republicans,” the label that turned Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan on its head stuck. Many Americans took seriously threats to democracy and Trump’s role. That influenced their view of who should be in control in Washington.

The Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade certainly motivated many of those who supported Democrats in November. But it seems undeniable that the threat of Congress ending up in the hands of a party that included so many people who bought into the falseness of what Trump was trying to sell also generated a backlash that was felt on Election Day. In many close races, vulnerable House Democratic incumbents were able to prevail, leaving Republicans with just 222 members in a House of 435 members. In the Senate, remarkably, Republicans lost ground.

On Friday, as Biden and congressional Democrats attended ceremonies marking the second anniversary of the attack and honoring the law enforcement officers who defended the Capitol during the siege and commemorating those who lost their lives, only a single House Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, chose to attend. That is the political legacy of Jan. 6 for what once was dubbed the Grand Old Party.

The long series of votes this week also suggested that Republicans have ignored more than just the meaning of Jan. 6. They have not fully listened to the meaning of a midterm election that went against history. After a string of change elections, in which there have been big swings in the makeup of Congress and the presidency switching hands, the 2022 election produced something closer to a status quo outcome.

For Republicans, the failure to win the big House majority that many had expected and the pain of losing ground in the Senate should have caused more introspection and reflection on the part of the Republicans. It has not. House Republicans have declared that the American people, with their votes, are demanding a full-throated Republican agenda and a full slate of investigations into the president, his son Hunter Biden and other areas. It is as if that red wave hit the shores and wiped away the Democrats.

No doubt there is public support for dealing with the massive flood of undocumented immigrants at the Mexican border, or of doing something to reduce the inflow of fentanyl that has killed so many Americans from drug overdoses, or of trying to hold down rising costs. The election results did not suggest a demand for a hard turn to the right or a call to empower an extreme wing of the Republican Party. They were not a clear mandate for Republicans.

Americans by nature seem to prefer divided government to one-party rule. In that way, the midterm elections put a check on the power of the Biden administration. Beyond that, many analysts have described the overall outcome as a collective call by voters for stability at a time of unrest, for seriousness of purpose by elected officials and perhaps even a turn away from the polarized political environment that has existed now for many years. House Republicans thumbed their nose at that sentiment during their spasm of the speaker’s fight.

McCarthy’s long march this past week has shown how difficult the environment for legislating could be for him and Republican leaders in the House. McCarthy has been a prime witness for showing how debilitating the grinding process of holding together his narrow majority can be.

The antigovernment nihilists in the Republican Party are empowered now. McCarthy has shown no backbone in pushing back, only a willingness to be run over to claim a title. He has empowered Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who lost her committee assignments when Democrats controlled the House for incendiary and antisemitic comments and was consistently in support of his speakership candidacy all week.

He had to grapple with Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who reportedly sought a preemptive pardon from Trump. His allies had to negotiate with Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, who pushed to install the controversial Jeffrey Clark as attorney general in the waning days of the Trump administration. He faced a holdout from Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who barely won her reelection and is on the far fringe of her party, until she finally voted “present” to ease his route to victory.

After his 13th ballot loss but ahead of the 14th, McCarthy expressed confidence of victory and said the long week had taught Republicans how to govern. Those words came back to haunt him six hours later when his quest collapsed again on the 14th ballot, triggering scenes on the House floor that no one had seen before.

McCarthy has no doubt learned some things from what happened this week. Whether they are the right lessons in the aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021, and the midterm elections last November, will only become clear in the months ahead. The opening days of the 118th Congress leave little room for optimism that such is the case.

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