WASHINGTON (AP) — The day before he was ousted, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was doing what he loved — stopping to greet tourists at the Capitol, gushing about the beauty of the place and its history at the center of American democracy.
On Wednesday, McCarthy’s House was shuttered, his Republican majority in chaos and unable to legislate for the foreseeable future, with grave ramifications for the U.S. experiment in governing.
With no speaker of the House, a constitutional officer second in line to the presidency, the Congress cannot fully function — to pass laws, fund the government and otherwise serve as the branch of government closest to the people — during a time of simmering uncertainty at home and abroad.
“A democracy relies on its legislative branch — it’s the most important branch of any democratic government,” said Matthew Green, an expert on Congress at Catholic University.
“Without a speaker, you have real risk.”
For McCarthy, it’s the end of the arc of his political career, from running a sandwich counter in Bakersfield, California, to the pinnacle of power, only to have his downfall engineered by some of the hard-right Republican lawmakers he helped elect to Congress but ultimately could not tame.
Democrats compounded the pain, only too happy to help oust him, in a brutal display of partisan politics.
“He had made his bed,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said ahead of the vote.
McCarthy is no bystander to the turmoil that so often defined his tenure in Congress, and in fact he was an early architect of the new Republican Party that has almost fully replaced what once was.
In office for nearly 20 years, McCarthy played a pivotal role in the 2010 election that sent a new generation of “ tea party ” Republicans to take control of the House. He was the campaign chairman who recruited the dozens of conservative newcomers who swept to power.
With fundraising skills and a keen eye for unique candidates, McCarthy was the party’s winning strategist, adding to Republican ranks even when it meant electing hard-right figures.
Part of the trio of “Young Guns” with Majority Leader Eric Cantor and future Speaker Paul Ryan, McCarthy and his political operation were crucial for the party as he crisscrossed the country with an extensive base of connections to wealthy donors.
Those years saw the stirrings of a party purge that continues to this day, leaving an open question of who, if anyone, can lead the House Republicans.
Then-Speaker John Boehner tried but failed to corral the newly conservative flank — enduring a U.S. debt default crisis, a prolonged government shutdown and a fiscal cliff that put the country on edge — before he was ultimately chased to early retirement by the same threat that would befall McCarthy.
Boehner’s chief antagonist at the time was Mark Meadows, then a Republican congressman who led the Freedom Caucus and would go on to become President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. Meadows filed a “motion to vacate” — at the time an unheard-of procedural move resurrected from political obscurity.
Rather than risk the continued threat of an ouster, Boehner simply mic-dropped and left.
A California Republican, McCarthy was never considered much of an ideologue. Rather, he positioned himself as a Reagan Republican, part of a generation that came of age during Ronald Reagan’s presidency captivated by a more sunny-side telling of the American experience.
That lack of a firm ideological footing in far-right politics cost McCarthy the speaker’s gavel when he first reached for it, after Boehner’s ouster in 2015, as fellow Republican lawmakers viewed him as insufficiently conservative at best. Others viewed him as operating without a political compass.
He abandoned the speaker’s race to Ryan, who was chased from the office a few short years later as he came up against the right flank during the Trump era.
“All three of them were chased out,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday.
“Speaker Boehner, Speaker Ryan and now Speaker McCarthy have all learned the same lesson: You cannot allow the hard right to run the House, or the country.”
As Republicans fell into minority status with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in charge, McCarthy went on to recruit the class of 2022 Republicans to retake House control — in line for the speaker’s gavel in another history-making moment.
But it took a brawling 15-vote slugfest over the first week of the new Congress in January for McCarthy to win the votes from his own reluctant Republican Party to become speaker, a prelude of his ouster to come.
With just a slim majority hold, a handful of hard-right holdouts forced him to make concessions for the gavel, including the ability to more easily remove him from office.
Still, finally becoming speaker after so long seemed to have changed McCarthy, and he quickly grew into the role. His mantra: “I never quit.”
His suits appeared sharper, his sunny demeanor more pronounced, the flashes of anger subdued as he ambled through the halls.
In his element, McCarthy would open the House chamber, making a point to stop and chat with visitors along the way — at times even setting up a photo line for those who swarmed to snap pictures.
Underestimated from the start, he surprisingly delivered at two crucial moments, reaching a debt deal with President Joe Biden to avoid default and preventing a government shutdown last weekend at grave risk to his job.
McCarthy had become the magnanimous “Man in the Arena,” as he liked to think of himself — the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt hanging in his suite of speaker’s offices at the Capitol.
“I give as good as I get,” he quipped the night he was ousted.
But like the others before him, McCarthy was no match for the increasingly hard-right flank that has come to dominate the Republican Party.
A handful of hardliners led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., blocked McCarthy in January from becoming House speaker, and many of them cast the votes Tuesday on the “motion to vacate” to remove the speaker — with the government shutdown deal the latest complaint against him.
Others, including Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who had been beneficiaries of McCarthy’s campaign funding, also turned on him in the end.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he had just one piece of advice to the next House speaker: Get rid of the motion to vacate.
“It makes the speaker’s job impossible,” he said. “The American people expect us to have a functioning government.”
McCarthy bitterly unleashed on his foes and intimated he would use his vast campaign sums in the future to wage primary candidates against them as he tries to steer the Republican Party back to some earlier vision of itself.
“They’re not conservative,” McCarthy railed in a rambling press conference on his way out. Evoking Reagan, he said of his foes: “They don’t get to say they’re conservative because they’re angry and they’re chaotic. That’s not the party I belong to.”
McCarthy had taken great pride in reopening the House this year after pandemic closures and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — the people’s House, he would say.
But after nine months on the job, one of the shortest speakerships in history, the leader who said he would never quit did just that, announcing he would not try to regain the gavel as the House closed up.