And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain.
Come on! You know the Sinatra classic. Croon along with me as we emotionally gird ourselves for the closing act of Kevin McCarthy’s long, disappointing stint in Congress.
Having spent most of 2023 as a punching bag for his conference’s right flank, McCarthy has finally reached his pain threshold. At the end of this month, he announced on Wednesday, he will pack up his toys and flee the House, having made history as the first speaker booted from the job.
But do not cry for the former young gun. He has too few regrets to mention. As he bravely cheered his own performance in a Wall Street Journal essay announcing his departure, “I go knowing I left it all on the field – as always, with a smile on my face.”
Boy, did he. In his fevered pursuit of the gavel, McCarthy time and again prostrated himself before the altar of Donald Trump, sacrificing basically all the things that matter: his dignity, his integrity, his values (such as they were), his soul – you name it.
Now, looking back on each and every highway the congressman traveled to reach this point, I feel compelled to ask: Was it worth it, Kev?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. McCarthy came roaring into Washington from California in 2007 with big dreams and enormous promise. Alongside Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, he was part of a new generation of fresh, feisty conservatives looking to overhaul what they saw as a stale, out-of-touch Republican Party.
Like an adorable boy band, the three pals each had a persona: Ryan, the policy wonk; Cantor, the blossoming leader; and McCarthy, the political animal. McCarthy was less concerned about policy or ideology than about mapping out the wins – for his team and, above all, for himself. Riding high in the mid-Obama era, the trio wrote a book, titled, of course, “Young Guns,” that boldly demanded to know: “America urgently needs a new direction. But who will provide it?”
Spoiler alert: none of these guys.
Instead of remaking the party, the party wound up remaking the young guns – or, in some cases, simply kicking them to the curb. McCarthy hung on longer than the others, which was a real tribute to his ability to shape-shift as circumstances dictated.
Amiable and nonthreatening, the sunny Californian had long used his people skills to make allies and build the coalitions needed to realize his goals. He was a top-notch schmoozer and formidable fundraiser, all of which helped him ease his way up the political ladder and into House leadership. But the man’s fundamental hollowness clung to him like poop on a shoe, prompting many of his more ideological compatriots to distrust him. This was wise on their part. When they at long last let him have the top job this year, he promptly disappointed them – disappointed everyone, really, as he worked to wriggle out of the more absurd, even impossible promises he had made.
Of course, a shape-shifting, flip-flopping, overpromising, self-serving politician is nothing new. Where McCarthy truly distinguished himself was in his willingness and ability to debase himself in the service of Donald Trump – even as he occasionally pretended to still have a spine. “My Kevin,” as Trump so delighted in calling him, certainly did his part to aid Trump’s political revival after the Jan. 6 sacking of the Capitol. In a turnaround so dramatic it must have given him whiplash, McCarthy went from saying that Trump needed to “accept his share of responsibility” for his role in the attack to, some weeks later, slinking down to Mar-a-Lago for a grotesque photo op with the former president.
What could be more pathetic than this little field trip? McCarthy’s attempts to justify it. In “Oath and Honor,” the new book by Liz Cheney, the former congresswoman and Trump scourge, she dishes some dirt about confronting him.
“Mar-a-Lago? What the hell, Kevin?” she asked, according to CNN.
“They’re really worried,” McCarthy offered. “Trump’s not eating, so they asked me to come see him.”
Betraying democracy because the MAGA king’s appetite was off? Wow. Just wow.
Give McCarthy his due: All that butt smooching worked, kind of, allowing him to wheedle his way into his dream job for 11 not-so-glorious months. But having handed his leash to the right-wingers, he had no room left to do his job leading the House. And the moment he dared to cross them, using his deal-cutting, coalition-building skills to hammer out a bipartisan debt limit agreement and avoid crashing the global economy, he was a marked man. The extremists were on the prowl for any excuse to take him down, and come late September, the stopgap funding deal he cut to prevent a government shutdown filled the bill. A few days later, they snatched the gavel back from him, along with the last remaining shreds of his dignity.
It’s hard to dispute that this is the ending that McCarthy deserved. By contrast, the American people don’t deserve the damage that he has done to the House – and, really, the nation – that will linger long after he is gone. By empowering the most extreme elements of the Republican conference, he made an already fractured, fractious chamber even more dysfunctional. Worse, by shoring up Trump after Jan. 6, he helped put America back on a crash course with a dangerous, antidemocratic demagogue looking for political revenge.
These are McCarthy’s legacies. If he is remembered at all, it will be as a cautionary tale about what happens when one leaves it all on the field in the service of little more than blind ambition.
Thanks a lot, Kev. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.