Kevin McCarthy’s Place in the History Books

What’s happening in Washington — the House of Representatives’ failing to elect a speaker on the first ballot — has happened only 15 times. In the last few days, during Kevin McCarthy’s ongoing and increasingly surreal attempt to become the leader of the House, two particular failed votes have come up a lot: the previous one (1923) and the most drawn-out one (1856).

Beginning in 1855, ending in 1856, the House required 133 ballots to name a speaker, stalling Congress out for months. Eventually, lawmakers agreed to select a speaker by plurality. If you think about the date, a failed vote makes sense contextually: The debate over the speaker reflected the debate about the expansion of slavery into new territories. Four of the 15 failed votes in history took place between 1847 and the beginning of the Civil War. The country was ostensibly deadlocked but in the process of breaking apart over the central problem of American history.

Since the Civil War, this has happened only one other time, in 1923. That vote failed because a group of progressive Midwestern Republicans initially refused to back the more conservative Republican speaker of the House for re-election. In the 1920s, the Republican Party shifted to become the party of Calvin Coolidge, and all that entailed with limited government, protectionism and isolationism. But in the broader sense, thinking about the time period, deadlock makes sense for the 1920s — a time when massive urbanization, technological innovation and immigration had changed the country, and a period that included the rise of weird coalitions that produced things like Prohibition, as well as racist backlash against Black Americans and European immigrants. With the 1850s and 1920s, you can see the outlines of a framework where the fractured operation of government possibly reflected fractured societies.

In 2023, Mr. McCarthy’s willingness to stand on the floor for failed vote after failed vote after failed vote after failed vote has a bizarre quality as an event on TV and Twitter. Nothing meaningful changed across three days (and counting). But the impasse and repetition is mesmerizing, operating in a space between institutional concern, dark comedy and some deep human element, since the dynamics of this willingness to lose are so unusual. “We are gonna go in here and have votes and nothing is going to change,” Mr. McCarthy told reporters on Thursday morning. “What we are doing is having really good progress and conversations.”

The whole thing is like a hallucination. You can see on Twitter the screenshot of the Republican staff email subject line, “CANCELED: GRAB-N-GO Pizza & Salads” or watch Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stand outside the Capitol with an incoming member of Congress and talk about, laughing, how nobody knows what to do. There are still no actual members of the House of the Representatives, because under normal rules the winners of the November elections can’t be sworn in until there’s a speaker. Mr. McCarthy is operating from the speaker’s office, even though he isn’t the speaker.

In 20 years, will there be enough historical context for this that someone can see it took place in 2023 and immediately understand why, the way that we now do when we see those votes from the 1850s and 1920s?

You can definitely say that the fractured votes this week occurred during several unusually turbulent years, and just reflect a fractured or fracturing country. After the last decade, we’ve seen how hypothetical problems can become existential problems, quickly. Pandemics happen; people bust up the Capitol; thousand-year weather events take place all the time; routine government procedures really do fall apart.

You could also find a context about splits in the Republican Party at an inflection point between the Trump era and whatever will come after it, as some people feel Donald Trump’s influence might be sliding. The Trump era produced a number of this week’s dissenters — like Representatives Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert. Under that framework, their hardcore opposition to Mr. McCarthy could reflect either the real future of conservative politics — or, in the other direction, a kind of reactionary response to the possibility of declining influence.

Another, somewhat similar argument sees the emphatic opposition to Mr. McCarthy as the latest evolution of the Tea Party tactics that dominated politics in the early 2010s, when ideological fights over government spending and the Constitution disrupted government function, but also became a major source of fund-raising and publicity.

But the failed votes feel, on some level, to be more about personality, ambition and chaos. Mr. Trump has said that the McCarthy opponents should cut a deal and vote for Mr. McCarthy. But it hasn’t worked, suggesting the biggest Trump products have detached a bit from Mr. Trump. Instead, the same loop has played out: people opposing Mr. McCarthy to oppose him, Republicans submitting to broken-video-game loop of lost votes, and Mr. McCarthy offering more and more concessions to a tiny group of people to be speaker for a possibly brief period of time.

Some of the concessions are fairly neutral in outlook (like rules changes that might bring more chaos but also deal-making to the appropriations process). But a lot of them would most likely elevate the McCarthy opponents even further, into roles with real government power, and create ongoing disruptions like this — even if most people seem to not want that out of Washington right now.

Politics can have a nihilistic edge, like the fund-raising appeals we all get that insist the country is on the verge of apocalypse no matter what’s happening. You could argue that kind of political nihilism is the broader context to the situation with the Republican Party right now: Mr. McCarthy made so many concessions to Mr. Trump to keep the party together and try to become speaker that he eventually cut up the job into something few people could want.

Or maybe the ultimate context is just that — for some period of time, not concluded yet — we’ve entered into a realm where the unbelievable happens. As Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said on Tuesday night of her House floor conversations with Republicans, “In chaos, anything is possible, especially in this era.”

Katherine Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.

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