October 4, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
With McCarthy out, Democrats finish GOP’s civil-war battle
Historic vote to toss speaker may signal end of an era during which Democrats cleaned up after Republicans for more than a decade.
I think the first thing to get right in our heads, about the US House of Representatives voting out its speaker for the first time in our history, is this: Kevin McCarthy’s ouster was not the result of an intraparty civil war. It was a consequence of the opposing party taking advantage of the GOP’s chaos, dysfunction and disorder. Put simply, the Republicans gave the Democrats a gun, but never believed they’d pull the trigger. They did. Now they’re big mad.
North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry is now the temporary speaker. His first act was to order Nancy Pelosi, speaker emeritus, to vacate her Capitol office. She didn’t vote to expel McCarthy, but more than anyone, she represents the Democrats. She also epitomizes good governance and effective leadership. McHenry’s vindictiveness is made pettier by the fact that he gave Pelosi a day to leave. She isn’t even in Washington. She’s in California, attending Dianne Feinstein’s funeral.
Republicans probably expected the Democrats to keep doing what they’ve done since 2010 and therefore vote to protect McCarthy’s job “for the sake of the country” or some such thing. They knew they were giving the Democrats a gun, but never believed they’d pull the trigger.
Such pettiness suggests the House Republicans never thought that the Democrats would get involved in their affairs. Indeed, Pelosi herself had said as much in a tweet posted in advance of yesterday’s vote. But something happened between those two moments. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries reportedly told his caucus that McCarthy can no longer be trusted, and that Democrats should vote to boot him.
Some are suggesting that McCarthy is to blame. After his heel-turn over the weekend, when he turned to the Democrats to prevent the government from being shut down, he went on rightwing media to savage the Democrats for … it doesn’t really matter. GOP “moderates” were relieved when they were saved from the insurgents in their ranks, who had been gunning for a shutdown. The “moderates” didn’t want that. The Democrats saved them. What thanks did they get?
McCarthy had already shown that he can’t be trusted, though. He had agreed to maintain current spending levels back in June when he and other leaders of both parties struck a deal to avoid a default on the US debt. But since then, McCarthy had been letting the GOP insurgents re-negotiate what were presumably non-negotiable terms. He kept letting them do so up to the final hour Saturday, by which time he realized too late that the people he was trying to appease won’t be appeased. That’s when he turned to the Democrats, who then quickly bailed him out.
A question unanswered so far has been why the Democrats took so long to act. After all, as a condition of getting the speakership, McCarthy agreed to a rule by which any member, Republican or Democrat, could file a motion to vacate the chair, or call a vote to fire the speaker. It was a gun that any Democrat could have used at any time. None did. Only after 11 insurgents, most notably Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, got mad about McCarthy relying on the Democrats to keep the government open, did they see an opportunity.
They already had a motive. Democrats have long felt frustration about being forced to clean up after the Republicans, who have turned The People’s House into a madhouse, and have been doing so for more than a decade. Since the so-called tea party wave of 2010, the Republicans have barely gotten anything done that wasn’t out of a sense of crises — that is, of their own making. (The exception was when Donald Trump was president. They gave him whatever he wanted.) The Democrats were always expected to clean up the mess, and they usually did.
Republicans like Speaker Pro-Tempore Patrick McHenry, who is now lashing out against Nancy Pelosi, probably expected the Democrats to keep doing what they’ve done since 2010 and therefore vote to protect McCarthy’s job “for the sake of the country” or some such thing. They knew they were giving the Democrats a gun, but never believed they’d pull the trigger. How could the Democrats be so nakedly partisan?
Partisan, yes, but entirely reasonable. At some point in the near future, we may look back at yesterday’s vote to see that it ended an era during which the Democrats took responsibility for governing every time the Republicans failed to take any responsibility at all. Importantly, even some Republicans are not blaming them for lost patience. Former Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who co-chaired the committee investigating Donald Trump’s J6 insurrection, said in June that the problem with the Republican Party is that it keeps running “idiots.”
Ari Fleischer, a former senior official in the George W. Bush administration, said last night that “the Republican Party today just can’t govern.” He added: “Nancy Pelosi, with a five-vote majority, was able to govern. The Democrats have become the party of discipline and the Republicans have become the party that lacks discipline.”
Even Donald Trump appears to understand that the chaos, dysfunction and disorder that he is uniquely responsible for unleashing is a liability. After last night’s vote to push McCarthy out, he said: “Why is it that Republicans are always fighting among themselves, why aren’t they fighting the Radical Left Democrats who are destroying our Country?”
The story right now is that the Republicans were angry about McCarthy relying on the Democrats to keep the government open, and that they booted him out as punishment. But a sizable majority of his conference voted against the shutdown. All but 11 of them voted to keep him as speaker. So the real story isn’t about an intraparty civil war. It isn’t about a majority of “moderates” being cowed by a minority of insurgents. The real story is an opposing party that has had enough of chaos, dysfunction and disorder. It’s about a Democratic caucus that already had the motive. When it finally saw an opportunity, it used it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.