Department of Political Science


House speaker election: fight over McCarthy’s leadership exposed limits of Trump’s power

11 January 2023

Thomas Gift writes in The Conversation

Kevin McCarthy gives a speech after winning the Speaker elections. He is smiling in front of the USA flag

Written by Thomas Gift, Centre for US Politics.
Published 6 Jan 2023. The Conversation.


Kevin McCarthy has finally been elected speaker of the US House of Representatives after 15 gruelling votes – a longer process than has been needed than at any time since the civil war. Around 20 of his fellow Republicans had been refusing to approve his appointment to the role – one of the most powerful in US politics – and required numerous concessions to bring enough of them on board.

Republicans promised an obstructionist government. But they didn’t campaign on obstructing themselves. For a tiny minority of Republicans from ruby-red districts, sticking it to McCarthy has been the ultimate power play. Setting the party’s “establishment” on fire doesn’t just seem like a byproduct of the venture, more and more it looks to be the entire point.

Many experts, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, predicted that the huffing and puffing of the anti-McCarthy camp would end with a prompt capitulation to party leadership before the first-round vote. Instead, they’ve sowed mayhem. McCarthy lacked a “Plan B” after offering concessions (and making threats) failed. By contrast, his rebel opponents came armed not only with a strategy — but one that successfully brought the House to a standstill.

Beyond Trump

While led by Trump acolytes, it’s important to stress that the anti-McCarthy campaign wasn’t a Trump-led plot. If anything, it exposed the limits of Trump’s power. Before the first speaker vote, Trump urged Republicans to rally behind McCarthy, who is the Republican leader in the House. After the initial standoff, he posted on Truth Social: “Vote for Kevin, close the deal.” However, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, who once called Trumpism “the greatest show on earth”, dismissed the comments as “sad”. Lauren Boebert, the Trumpiest of Trump loyalists hit back: “Trump needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that sir … it’s time to withdraw.”

An irony of the speaker fiasco is that it has featured extreme elements of the Republican party exerting power in the wake of the midterm elections in which their raison d’être – blowing up “the system” – had been roundly rejected. The 2022 midterms were defined by nothing if not a repudiation of election-denying firebrands and extreme Make America Great Again (MAGA)-types. And yet, some of the central players in that movement, including those who made a name for themselves by defending January 6, have also played starring roles in efforts to stoke bedlam in the fight over the speaker’s gavel.

The quarrel has proven that, despite setbacks, many Republicans both in Washington and in the GOP voter base still can’t get enough of the flame-throwing. Some have radicalised even beyond the far-reaches of TrumpismGerrymandering, which creates safe electoral seats, coupled with primaries in which the incentive is to court the extreme fringes of the base, means that right-wing efforts to shake up Capitol Hill won’t just peter out. In the long run, the goal is “to deal a blow against a Republican system that’s hostile to conservatives,” declared Virginia Representative Bob Good.

Still united against Biden

Conventional wisdom is that the hangover from the speaker fiasco will hobble House Republicans out of the gate, limiting their ability to govern. Yet with Joe Biden in the Oval Office and a Democrat-controlled Senate, it’s worth staying clear-eyed about the reality: governing was never the plan. Instead, the priorities will remain stymieing the White House agenda and holding Biden’s feet to the fire. Here, it’s hard to argue that Republicans aren’t four-square behind bloodying the president’s nose.

Any hopes that Biden has of pushing through more big ticket policies are no less dead on arrival just because Republicans delayed selecting a House speaker. Moreover, few items make the whole of the GOP salivate more than probing the hard drive of the president’s son Hunter, or digging into a litany of other controversies, from the origins of COVID-19, to the crisis at the US-Mexico border, to the Pentagon’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The speaker debacle has further bruised the reputation of Republicans. It’s exposed, more than caused, deep chasms between the “establishment” and “ultra-MAGA” wings of the party. The rifts won’t heal overnight, and there’s likely more bad blood to come. Intra-party retribution behind the scenes seems inevitable. All of this occurred because of another humiliation — the “red wave that wasn’t” in November’s midterms — which gave McCarthy a much slimmer majority than expected.

House Democrats have been emboldened from the sidelines by watching their opponents eat their own. But it’s possible to overstate the practical consequences for governing, and to exaggerate how much Republicans are on the back foot. Gridlock will still be the watchword in Washington for two years, and no amount of Republican infighting will keep its members’ eyes off the prize: embarrassing Biden, retaking the White House, and regaining a majority in Congress in 2024.

Read the article on The Conversation