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Democrats could have swooped in at the last moment to save House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who narrowly lost his position in a 216-210 vote on Tuesday. They could have tried to stop the rebellion launched by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Trump ally who filed a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair after McCarthy worked with Democrats to strike a shutdown-averting spending deal.

But they didn’t. Why?

After the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, started by a pro-Trump mob intending to overturn the 2020 election, McCarthy seemed to acknowledge that a dangerous line had been crossed. Trump “bears responsibility” for the riot, he told House Republicans after the failed insurrection.

But he changed his mind after a visit to Mar-a-Lago three weeks later. “McCarthy believes it’s in his interest to be on Trump’s good side,” Politico reported at the time.

McCarthy would not disappoint the former president. He opposed the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack and, earlier this year, gave an enormous cache of security footage from that day to Tucker Carlson, who at the time was using his top-rated Fox News program to spread lies about and minimize the insurrection.

Democrats have never forgiven him. “No single figure is more to blame for the ‘rehabilitation’ of Trump post-1/6 than McCarthy,” the historian Garrett M. Graff wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “His utter lack of honor and courage will be the defining thread of McCarthy’s story in history.”

Is McCarthy to blame?

McCarthy’s ambition to hold the speaker’s gavel has been well known for years. He won the position after a grueling fight with hard-liners including Gaetz and members of the Freedom Caucus. One of the concessions he made was amending House rules so a single legislator could introduce a motion to vacate the speakership.

It was clear that Gaetz or another opponent would use that power against him. It was only a question of when.

House Democrats have argued for months, if not years, that their Republican peers were not interested in governing and were, in this view, obstructionists beholden to an extremist ideology. By letting McCarthy twist in the wind, they more or less proved that point.

“Kevin McCarthy has proven unworthy of presiding over the House. But the Republican civil war is bigger than one man,” leading House Rep. Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, said after his ouster. “Right-wing MAGA extremism has enveloped the Republican Party and taken over the business of the People’s House.”

Why didn’t Democrats help McCarthy?

It was clear after Saturday’s shutdown deal that McCarthy’s speakership was on the line — and that his best chance at survival was to make a deal with Democrats. But having done just that on Saturday, he concluded he could not do so again.

“House Democratic centrists held the key to bailing out Kevin McCarthy,” Politico reported. “Yet in the end, he gave them no incentive to salvage his besieged speakership.”

With no benefit for their party, Democrats declined to extend the ample lifeline they had at their disposal to save him.

Was it a mistake?

No, says a former staffer for a top Democrat on Capitol Hill, arguing in a text message to Yahoo News that for the Democrats, it simply wasn’t worth it to save McCarthy. “He’s not a legislator,” the staffer wrote. “He’s a power-hungry Republican who has had to repeatedly sell his soul to win votes.”

But others think Democrats are wrong to celebrate McCarthy’s demise because whatever comes next will be much worse — for all Americans. “Although Dems aren’t to blame for this chaos, they have a moral obligation to strive for the best outcome for America, and — based on the likely alternatives — Speaker McCarthy is probably as good as it gets,” argued anti-Trump conservative Matt Lewis.

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