7 min read

Some thoughts on Kevin McCarthy

A postmortem on the former House speaker as he announces his resignation from Congress.
Some thoughts on Kevin McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy in 2020. (Matt Johnson)

Good morning! It’s Thursday, December 7, 2023. The 2024 elections are 334 days away. The Iowa caucuses are 39 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

🎙️ Heads up: I’ll be recapping last night’s Republican debate on NPR’s “1A” from 10-11 a.m. ET. Listen live at the1a.org or check your local listings here.

Kevin McCarthy announced Wednesday that he will resign from his seat at the end of the year, just months after becoming the first House speaker in history to be ousted by his colleagues.

Some thoughts on his impending resignation:

1. This is a very normal thing for him to do. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who orchestrated McCarthy’s removal, said yesterday: “I don't know anyone else who would just say, ‘Well if I can't run the place, I’m gonna leave.’ Nancy Pelosi, for all her flaws — and there are many — she at least stuck around.” But Pelosi is actually the historical anomaly, not McCarthy.

Pelosi was the first House speaker in 110 years to stay in Congress directly after their speakership as a rank-and-file member, without any leadership post. Most of the recent speakers have done exactly what McCarthy is doing: leave the House once they’ve surrendered the gavel.

2. It was growing increasingly untenable for him to stay. McCarthy wasn’t sitting on any committees or attending GOP conference meetings, since his presence tended to dominate the proceedings. Instead, he was reduced to roaming the Capitol and threatening revenge against his antagonists, including allegedly shoving one of them in a hallway.

While Pelosi has assumed a comfortable emeritus position where she serves as a key sounding board for her successor, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) reportedly never called McCarthy for advice. There was very little reason for him to stick around.

3. His departure only serves to empower his enemies further. When McCarthy steps down, the House GOP’s slim 221-213 majority will become 220-213. Then, early next year, Reps. Bill Johnson (R-OH) and Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) are set to resign as well, bringing the breakdown to 219-212.

If Democrats win the February special election to succeed former Rep. George Santos (R-NY), the House will stand at 219-213 — which means Republicans would only be able to afford two defections on every vote, giving rebels like Gaetz even more influence. (“Hopefully no one dies,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) wrote on X of the fragile majority.)

4. Democrats may have helped oust him, but they might live to miss him. Who knows how McCarthy would have governed during the current fight over Ukraine spending, but it’s worth noting that the ex-speaker repeatedly voted to aid Ukraine, including as recently as September. On the same vote, now-Speaker Johnson voted “nay.”

McCarthy frequently catered to his right flank as speaker, but when it counted — when the government was about to shut down in September and when it was about to default in May — he cut deals with Democrats to avert disaster. We’ll see if Johnson takes the same approach.

5. Republicans will miss him too. Not just his vote, but his cash. McCarthy was the best fundraiser the House GOP had ever seen.

6. House Republicans are losing a lot of institutional knowledge next year. McCarthy’s close ally Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who served as acting speaker after his ouster, also announced his retirement this week; House Appropriations Committee chair Kay Granger (R-TX) is another Republican set to leave at the end of this Congress.

They were all in the shrinking category of Republicans willing to work with their colleagues across the aisle, a category that seems to shrink even more every two years. (Read Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer’s statement yesterday if you doubt that McCarthy belongs on that list.)

7. McCarthy’s most lasting legacy — even more than his chaotic nine months with the gavel — will likely be his rehabilitation of Donald Trump. On January 13, McCarthy said publicly that Trump “bears responsibility” for the riot that had taken place a week before. By January 28, McCarthy was at Mar-a-Lago meeting with Trump, and any thought that Republicans would permanently banish the ex-president flew to the rearview mirror.

8. House Republicans’ problems will outlast him. Just yesterday, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) called the new compromise defense policy package “strike two and a half — if not more” for Speaker Johnson. Meanwhile, MTG accused another Republican lawmaker of getting physically aggressive with her. McCarthy was not the ultimate source of the chaos within GOP, nor will it be ended by his stepping down from Congress.

9. McCarthy is only 58, and likely has a lucrative second act in the private sector ahead of him. (He has also suggested that he will spend his spare time raising money to make life difficult for lawmakers, like Gaetz, who organized his ouster.) If you’re wondering why he’s stepping down now, in the middle of his term, instead of a year from now: former House members have to wait 12 months before they can become lobbyists. If you’re McCarthy, suddenly lacking any influence in your current job, why wait an extra year to start that clock?

More news to know.

The Republican presidential field — sans Donald Trump — met for their final debate of 2023 last night. It was probably the most combative debate yet, with Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy both aiming their fire at Nikki Haley, who has been rising in the polls. “I love the attention, fellas,” she said at one point, as the duo attacked her for her corporate ties, her approach to China, and her record on transgender issues.

But only one candidate — Chris Christie — spent significant time going after Trump, who is running laps around all four of the candidates who were on stage. After lingering as a non-factor during earlier debates, Vintage Christie came out to play, skewering Ramaswamy as “the most obnoxious blowhard in America” and calling out DeSantis for refusing to answer whether Trump was fit to be president.

But nothing that happened last night is likely to alter the trajectory of the race, with Christie languishing in the single digits and DeSantis, Haley, and Ramaswamy not too far ahead of him. In a sign of where the GOP electorate’s mood is, the debate audience loudly booed during Christie’s closing statement, as he referred to Trump’s impending criminal trials.

Tune in here at 10 a.m. ET for more debate analysis from me on NPR.

More headlines:

The day ahead.

The National Menorah, a capital staple since 1979. (American Friends of Lubavitch)

President Biden has only his daily intelligence briefing on his public schedule.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will host two holiday parties at the Naval Observatory, the VP’s residence. Emhoff will also deliver remarks at the lighting of the National Menorah outside the White House.

The Senate will vote to advance Richard E.N. Federico’s nomination to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Tenth Circuit. The chamber may also hold votes on S.J.Res.51, a resolution by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would require the removal of all 900 U.S. troops currently in Syria, and on beginning debate on the House/Senate conference committee draft of the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense policy bill.

The House will vote on H.J.Res.88, which would overturn the Biden administration’s income-driven student loan repayment plan. The chamber is also set to vote on a resolution to censure Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) for falsely pulling a Capitol fire alarm earlier this year.

Before I go...

Me with Norman Lear in 2018.

Here’s one more thing: Norman Lear, the legendary creator of “All in the Family” and several other TV shows, died this week at the age of 101.

I actually met Lear, once, in 2018, when I was a guest on his podcast, “All of the Above.” The New York Times had written about me a few months before, and apparently Lear had read the article and told his team to reach out about interviewing me.

I received a lot of media requests in that period — most of which I ignored. But when I told my parents, who had grown up watching his shows, that someone named Norman Lear wanted to talk to me, they told me “no” wasn’t an option. A few months later, I was in his LA studio.

The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever wrote yesterday that the secret to Lear’s longevity was his curiosity — his “lifelong, empathetic desire to know what everyone else’s lives were like.”

That’s something I can personally attest to. When I appeared on his podcast, I was 16 years old; he was 96. But despite the eight-decade gap between us, he showed a very genuine interest in my life and seemed committed to wanting to know what young Americans were thinking and how they viewed the world. Instead of merely resting on his laurels — which he very well could have done in his late 90s — he remained involved in politics to the end, and was keenly interested in hearing from someone of a very different generation.

He even — quite unexpectedly — took an interest in my love life. After finishing the usual questions about politics and the news, Lear launched into asking me if I had a girlfriend. I replied that I didn’t; before I could say anything else, he started recording an “ad” on my behalf, in case any 16-year-old girls were listening to the podcast and might be interested.

I’ll never forget looking wide-eyed through the studio window at my parents, who were sitting in an adjoining room — none of us quite sure what to make of the whole surreal experience.

Rest in peace, Mr. Lear.

Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.‌‌‌‌

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.‌‌‌‌

— Gabe