Last night was the night a lot of bills came due for Kevin McCarthy.
The bill came due for pandering to his party’s extremes, for desperate deals and broken promises. Most of all, the bill came due for the House Republicans’ failure in the elections of 2022.
Republicans have had a lot of bad elections since Donald Trump took over the party. They lost the popular vote for president in 2016, they lost the House in 2018, they lost the presidency in 2020, and they lost the Senate in 2021.
The 2022 election cycle was supposed to break the Trump curse. It was supposed to be the year of the red wave that would sweep away Joe Biden’s woke mob in Congress. Instead, Republicans posted net losses of one seat in the U.S. Senate, two governorships, and four state legislative chambers. Amid all of the defeats, there was one piece of good news: They reclaimed the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But that seeming victory proved deceptive. Democrats had lost the majority, but Republicans had not won a functioning majority of their own.
They tried to act otherwise. They tried to advance a big agenda, even tried to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Biden. To propel that agenda required their tiny majority to march in unison, each member subordinating his or her own wishes to the collective will.
Predictably, that did not happen.
Which left Plan B: Accept reality; acknowledge that the GOP had not won a functioning majority; and reach across the aisle, make deals, and do your business that way.
That’s what McCarthy did in May with the debt-ceiling deal and tried to do again with the budget this past weekend. The first foray wounded him. The second finished him.
The rules of contemporary Republican politics make it hard to accept reality. Reality is just too awkward.
In reality, Trump has been a big vote loser for Republicans. He fluked into the presidency with a Dukakis-like share of the vote in 2016, then lost his party its majority in the House in 2018. Trump got decisively booted from the presidency in 2020; rampaged illegally on January 6, 2021; and then cost his party its Senate majority in the January 2021 runoff elections. His election-denier message damaged his party further in the elections of 2022. His demand for a Biden investigation and impeachment in 2023 is producing an embarrassing fiasco. But no Republican leader dares say these things out loud.
Most taboo of all is working with Democrats, on any terms other than total, one-sided domination: We win, you lose. So McCarthy just had to press ahead, acting as if he commanded a majority when he did not; insulting and demeaning the minority, even though he had to know that he might need their help at any minute.
That minute came. McCarthy sought Democratic votes to save him from his own refractory members, and in return he offered nothing. Not even politeness.
That proposition did not produce the desired results, and so here we are.
Where we are is a country with a solid anti-Trump majority confronting a pro-Trump minority that believes it has a right to rule without concession or compromise.
The only way to produce a stable majority in the House is for the next Republican leader to reach a working agreement with the Democrats to bypass the nihilists in the GOP caucus. But that agreement will have to be unspoken and even denied—because making agreements that show any respect for the other side will be seen by Republican partisans as betrayal. The price of GOP leadership is delivering delusions and fantasies: the delusion and fantasy that Trump won in 2020, the delusion and fantasy that the Republicans did not lose in 2022.
The Republican so-called majority in the House survives by perpetual self-hostage-taking. McCarthy secured his speakership in January by allowing any one member to trigger a vote to get rid of him. He stopped a default in May by agreeing to face a government shutdown in October. He avoided a shutdown with a 47-day extension, and by wrecking his own leadership.
The next leader will have to manage another set of delusions and fantasies—those being trafficked via the Biden impeachment inquiry. The reality is: Republicans have made a lot of angry accusations, but they have scant evidence that the president is guilty of anything other than fathering a troubled son. The fantasy is: They’ll discover proof of a huge criminal scheme that implicates President Biden.
For seven years, Republicans have protected and enabled Trump, the most corrupt and lawless president in American history. They crave to believe that Biden is as bad or worse, and they won’t be denied that craving by pesky details such as its crazy untruth. The next ringmaster will have to deliver a more exciting act to the most frenzied fans in the circus seats.
For the rest of the country, all of this threatens more crisis, more drama, more misgovernment, until one of two things happens. Either Republicans will overcome their taboo against reality and find some way to strike deals with their opponents, or voters in November 2024 will replace this dysfunctional majority that lives by lies with a functional majority that can work with facts.