The real reason Kevin McCarthy won
The historic speakership drama offered a very public reminder of a counterintuitive, often overlooked, congressional truth: Losing can sometimes be the only way to win.
Many were quick to label Kevin McCarthy’s 14 failed speakership ballots over four days an embarrassing and position-weakening display. They’re not wrong, especially when factoring in the wide-ranging concessions McCarthy had to grant to the 20 Republican holdouts who were hellbent on stalling his decades-long pursuit for the Speaker’s gavel.
Ironically, losing those votes—as agonizing as they were for him personally—was perhaps the only way McCarthy and the Republican Party could have cleared their intra-party logjam. He obviously wasn’t able to lock up the necessary majority through negotiations alone. After all, McCarthy and the GOP have known for months they’d have to elect a Speaker before the House could swear in its members or organize itself for legislative business. Despite constantly bargaining with potential detractors since November, McCarthy couldn’t avoid the parade of primetime floor defeats.
But if McCarthy is such an embarrassing loser, how, then, did he end up the victor?
His ultimate win, albeit to a less powerful speakership than the one just vacated by Nancy Pelosi, had a lot to do with the 14 public losses. With each failed vote—even when the actual vote totals remained static—public pressure mounted, the stakes grew higher, leverage between actors shifted, goalposts of acceptable outcomes moved, concessions were floated, and threats were either verified or smoked out as bluffs.
The weakness in the holdouts’ plan—‘if we deny McCarthy the speakership, he’ll just quit and someone else will step forward’—became clearer. And McCarthy’s strength—that he’d give away just about anything to become speaker—became an asset. (It also may soon prove to be his weakness and ultimate undoing.)
But as the failures mounted on national television last week, the political calculus for the rebels on the fourteenth ballot was completely different than it was on ballot No. 1.
The rebel’s position, whether because they got enough of what they wanted or because they couldn’t stomach being the reason the House couldn’t get to work, became politically and publicly untenable. Yes, they received important concessions. Yes, they proved that they can end McCarthy’s speakership whenever they want. Their ultimate relenting, though, wouldn’t have occurred if the hours and days of public obstruction, the frustrating stalemate, and the perceived failure, hadn’t taken place on the House floor for the world to witness.
It’s one thing to threaten to tank a bill or vote against the party; those actions occur in private where there are few mechanisms to verify the credibility of the threat.
It’s an entirely different thing to put your name next to a recorded vote preserved for history—to be publicly identified as the reason something doesn’t get done or to attach yourself to a policy stance on which you’d much rather leave wiggle room. Votes minimize, even eliminate, the coveted desire of lawmakers to keep their options open. Votes force choice. Votes expose. By themselves, they don’t guarantee success, but votes do the next best thing: They reveal information.
Despite these potential advantages, party leaders and lawmakers of both stripes are convinced that exposing intra-party disagreements and losing publicly are two of the biggest sins in congressional politics. Keeping disputes behind closed doors, they reason, is the only way to appear united, strong, and in charge. Airing dirty laundry is simply bad politics.
But, as the McCarthy episode highlights, avoiding losing votes at all costs is misguided for several reasons. For one, congressional lawmakers completely overestimate how many people outside of Washington are paying attention or even care about the day-to-day inner workings of Congress. Most can’t name the Speaker, let alone why it matters that McCarthy gave away three seats on the Rules Committee.
As much as the race dominated the Washington bubble, as much as Democrats gleefully pointed to disarray, hardly any lives were affected while the drama played out. Of the subset of Americans who heard about the Speaker’s race, all they’ll remember is who won in the end.
What made the process fascinating for so many was that lawmakers went to the floor not knowing the result. So much of Congress today is just a script that lawmakers act out. Floor votes are pre-determined, partisan affairs. General debate is just a recitation of press releases to a mostly empty chamber. Dealmaking on the floor is basically extinct. If a bill is lucky enough to get a vote it’s because the outcome is already known. Pelosi admitted as much when she said “I don’t go to the floor to lose.”
But that wasn’t the case with the speaker vote. Each vote last week carried a modicum of suspense and progress, as leaders literally worked the floor and negotiated with holdouts in front of C-SPAN cameras and the Capitol Hill press corps. This iterative process was exactly the messy, bottom-up legislative exercise that these holdouts have argued is lacking in modern lawmaking. We saw policymaking in action.
That it occurred at all, and that McCarthy was willing to keep coming back to negotiate, was a big reason his detractors eventually got onboard.
History has taught us again and again that nearly every issue—especially the hardest ones—were all political losers before they weren’t. The most complex, controversial, important legislative advances, like civil rights and health care, often follow decades of failures.
Policymaking isn’t a one-round game. It’s unending on purpose. We will never solve everything. There are no limits on the number of votes that can be taken on a given issue. In this way, losing votes aren’t failures, but rather important public events that can shift the political terrain just enough to make the next no-vote just a little bit harder to cast. Lawmakers too quickly forget what every sports fan already knows: a win, in the end, is all that matters.
That’s why McCarthy won—because he wasn’t afraid to lose.
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