“My work is only getting started,” Kevin McCarthy said Wednesday, in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed announcing his intention to “depart the House at the end of this year to serve America in new ways.”
Leave it to a high-profile Republican to place his own retirement announcement behind the Journal‘s paywall. (He also posted a video on social media.)
It was a roller coaster year for McCarthy, who in January prevailed in a marathon vote to secure to the House gavel only to become the first US House Speaker ousted by a motion to vacate when the same tormentors who forced 15 speakership ballots conspired to remove him from the post a mere nine months later.
Like a lot of Republicans, McCarthy’s trajectory changed forever once he crossed into Donald Trump’s event horizon. His retirement marks the official end of the “Young Guns,” the Hollywood handle adopted by McCarthy, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor when they were all… well, younger.
Once upon a time, McCarthy represented a challenge to the sedate Republican establishment. By 2023, he was that establishment, or at least in the minds of the GOP’s new gunslingers, for whom “burn it all down” isn’t a figure of speech.
Despite risking moral life and limb to stay in the good graces of Trump, McCarthy never succeeded in winning over the former president’s most fanatical supporters on Capitol Hill. That “failure” wasn’t for lack of trying. The problem for McCarthy wasn’t an aversion to self-abasement. He proved in January he was more than willing to prostrate himself at the feet of Trumpism as it currently manifests in the House.
The issue, rather, was that a single-minded MAGAphile is uncompromising, and governing in a democracy requires compromise. It’s easy enough to say no to everything when you’re rank and file, but when you’re the third-ranking member of the US government, legislative paralysis can’t be an end in itself.
Trump insists on his legendary dealmaking prowess, but the political ideology he unwittingly founded ironically came to be defined by a steadfast refusal to negotiate — on anything. When McCarthy was ousted in October, it was clear his far-right flank didn’t have any actual demands. Matt Gaetz wanted chaos through a shutdown or, failing that, through McCarthy’s humiliation.
The demise of the Young Guns began in 2014, with Cantor’s infamous primary loss to Dave Brat, who went on to become a Tea Party stalwart and a close Trump ally. Ryan’s relationship with Trump was — how should I put this? — complicated. The two found common ground in the former president’s signature tax cuts, but Ryan’s own retirement from politics in 2018 was foreboding: The GOP was fast becoming a personality cult. McCarthy joined up, but the club’s more ardent members never really trusted him.
Ultimately, McCarthy was swept away by the populist wave. Just like Cantor and Ryan before him. What comes next is anyone’s guess.
As I wrote in October, the Republican party increasingly appears to have no interest at all in governing. As Molly Jong-Fast recently wrote for Vanity Fair, Mike Johnson “isn’t as cartoonishly Trumpy as Gaetz or frothing on Fox News like Jim Jordan, but he’s perhaps even more dangerous: A zealot in an unassuming suit.” And then there’s the specter of a second Trump presidency.
McCarthy, never one to concede that it’s all falling apart even when it plainly is, put on a smile Wednesday. “I’m an optimist,” he wrote, in his Op-Ed for the Journal. “How could I not be?”