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It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy

Kevin McCarthy has become the Republican Republicans love to hate.
January 4, 2023
It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy
Not-Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Here’s a funny thing about the Freedom Caucus’s insurrection against Kevin McCarthy, which on Tuesday denied him election as Speaker of the House on three consecutive ballots for the first time in a century. On the surface, it looks like the firebrands and zealots are in revolt against the GOP “establishment.” But the reality is that the Republican establishment is deader than dead. It’s hard to date its demise with precision, but January 6, 2021 is a good marker. That was a second date that should live in infamy; a date when, following a violent assault on the Capitol, two-thirds of the Republican caucus voted with the mob. The battle unfolding over the speakership is not between the extremists and the establishment. It’s between two camps of extremists.

McCarthy, like all of the members of the Freedom Caucus who are attempting to thwart him, refused to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Like the Freedom Caucus, McCarthy has faithfully repeated the lie about the 2020 election being stolen. Like them, he has fanned the flames of conspiracism, pushed for an end to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, helped Harriet Hageman defeat Liz Cheney in the Wyoming primary, and enfolded Marjorie Taylor Greene in a great bear hug. He’s game for impeaching Alejandro Mayorkas, investigating Hunter Biden’s laptop, and removing the magnetometers at the entrance to the House floor. McCarthy has been indistinguishable from House Freedom Caucus members when it comes to matters of civic virtue too. He failed to condemn the brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, contenting himself with a private note to Speaker Pelosi, and was silent after Trump dined with Kanye West and Nick Fuentes. He has threatened to remove Eric Swalwell, Ilhan Omar, and Adam Schiff from their committees as revenge for Greene’s treatment by Democrats. He has expressed skepticism about aid to Ukraine, vowing that there would be no “blank check.” What more could the Freedom Caucus demand?

In fact, as the clock ticked down to the vote for speaker, McCarthy was willing to give in to every demand of the Freedom Caucus, even including the “motion to vacate the chair” which would permit five members of Congress to call a vote for the speaker’s removal whenever they chose.

If there were an establishment GOP remaining, it would recoil from the positions staked out by the leadership of the Freedom Caucus. Andy Biggs, who led the caucus from 2019 to 2022, refused to wear a mask even at the height of the pandemic. He sought a presidential pardon for his role in the fake elector scheme. He voted against giving medals to the Capitol police who behaved heroically on January 6. He opposed aid to Ukraine on the grounds that the border with Mexico remains unsecured. And he voted against admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO.

Bigg’s successor as Freedom Caucus chair is Scott Perry, who voted against a House resolution condemning the QAnon conspiracy, endorsed the “great replacement” garbage, and played a major role in the attempted coup of January 6. His texts to Mark Meadows reveal not a conservative but a borderline nut. He forwarded links to YouTube videos suggesting that votes had been manipulated by Italian satellites and recommended that Jeffrey Clark, a fellow refugee from reality, be installed as Attorney General. Like Biggs, he requested a presidential pardon.

These views do not place the Freedom Caucus on the right. They simply place them outside the realm of reason. And yet McCarthy, the supposed avatar of the Republican establishment, has been willing to surrender to their demands. His flexibility has not been rewarded only because they don’t really have demands. They don’t care about policy. If they did, they would seek something in exchange for their support. They haven’t. There is no price McCarthy would not stoop to pay—but they don’t have concrete goals other than posturing as anti-establishment. There is no way for McCarthy to negotiate with people whose only aim is to be seen as opposing him.

It’s the logical end point of a party that has descended into mindless demonization—of Democrats, of immigrants, of the “deep state,” of the FBI, of the medical profession, of the “woke” military—and now of one another. It’s hard to see how they can be trusted with power.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].