Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of Calif., points to the newly installed nameplate at his office after he was sworn in as speaker of the 118th Congress in Washington, early Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

It’s been hard to take your eyes off the train wreck on Capitol Hill. For Kevin McCarthy, the only thing worse than losing his race for House speaker was winning. We were transfixed by so many bribes, so many compromises, and even the attempted assault of one lawmaker by another, with a third breaking it up. To the victor belong the spoils, but also a diminished, soiled institution.

Everyone got to see Congress falling apart. C-SPAN had the rare opportunity to aim its cameras anywhere in the House chamber, given that there was no controlling legal authority to keep them fixed on their usual stationary “two shot.” We saw members changing seats like kids in the high school cafeteria. The holdouts were the stars of the show. Even if some Republican conference members agree with Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Paul Gosar (whose own family warned Arizona voters to drum him out of office), they don’t want to be wooing them. We saw the holdouts slumping in their seats, the united and cocky Democrats, and the frantic negotiations. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’d been feuding with Gaetz, sat next to him for a tête-à-tête. It was hard to know who to be sorry for until Gaetz almost got his face smashed in by Representative Mike Rogers. Sadly, everyone lost. Over on CBS, Stephen Colbert joked that Boebert had McCarthy’s manhood in a moleskin purse

Throughout the week, McCarthy retained some 200 members of the Republican conference. Still, many were appalled that he’d given so much away, like guaranteeing the House Freedom Caucus seats on the all-powerful House Rules Committee and allowing just one itinerant member to call a vote for his defenestration, the worst of his giveaways. McCarthy erased the red line he initially drew, requiring five members to initiate a motion to vacate the chair. Were this rule adopted, future speakers would be at the mercy of one alienated member, a cataclysm for the greater glory of one man. 

Despite the Neville Chamberlain–like appeasement, there lingered between 15 and 20 what might be called Never McCarthyites and a hard-core five Never, Never McCarthyites who couldn’t be bribed. Thursday, the question that hung heavy in the air was who would tell McCarthy, the former Young Gun, that he had to stop shooting blanks. 

A Californian, McCarthy remained sunny during what pundits were saying was his death foretold. He joked on the House floor, and Thursday night, he waxed optimistic. His allies said there was a deal in the works, meaning the boss had opened the store to looters who hadn’t grabbed enough jewels. When Donald Trump won a single vote on the 11th ballot and McCarthy failed to garner a majority yet again, it brought to mind the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. With exhausted members slumped in their seats, the one thing a narrow majority could agree on was calling it a night and returning on Friday afternoon. 

When members hobbled back from surgery and family emergencies to vote for the 14th time, the word was that McCarthy had a deal, despite the certainty that he’d given so much away that he couldn’t take back. The 57-year-old was in danger of losing the right-wing institutionalists who make up virtually all of his support. McCarthy spent the morning reassuring them that he’d not given every plush committee assignment away. When it came to pass that McCarthy was shooting blanks again, the safest thing to do was send everyone home. In the second most dramatic moment of the night—after one Republican lunged for the throat of another—McCarthy raced to the clerk of the House waving a red card as if he’d won the lottery to change his “Nay” on adjourning to a “Yea.” This time he wasn’t crying wolf. Gaetz—and one shudders to imagine what McCarthy pulled out of his hat for him—would vote “Present.” Like Raggedy Ann, McCarthy’s face shifted from exhausted sadness to beaming joy.

But there was no joy in Mudville Saturday morning as Republicans cheered. The spectacle was high-definition proof that the GOP couldn’t get their house in order, as had every House since 1856. What chance did the country have of managing the border, paying its bills, funding its government, and squelching another pandemic? 

The man from Bakersfield, who once genuflected before Ronald Reagan before he bowed to Trump, forgot the Gipper’s admonition not to negotiate with terrorists. (Of course, Reagan, another Californian, did sanction an arms deal with the Ayatollah, so McCarthy is in good company.) Now McCarthy has learned anew that when you give in to terrorists, they’re not neutralized. They’re emboldened. The new speaker has drawn the bomb thrower Taylor Greene to his side. The representative is now one of McCarthy’s closest allies even though she had been banished from serving on committees for her rantings. You can bet she has her pick of panels in the 118th Congress. McCarthy is an institutionalist who has climbed the slippery pole of politics almost to its finial. He’s worked within the system since 2007, taking the seat of his retiring boss, Representative Bill Thomas, who recently, presumably with sorrow, called his protégé a liar. Now he finds himself in debt to anti-institutionalists, which is like owing money to the mob. It doesn’t end well.

McCarthy is bending to the will of his extremists, who believe, like Nietzsche, that what the gods would build, they must first destroy, preferably on Fox News, as Boebert demonstrated last Wednesday night, talking over Sean Hannity, which is not easy to do. 

McCarthy’s sunny disposition led him to measure the drapes in the speaker’s office. He moved in to enjoy the balcony before the madness started. You could follow the pizza to see how fraught and how long negotiations were: They began with Washington’s fine Wiseguy Pizza and descended to Domino’s. McCarthy’s moving in before he had the job so annoyed Gaetz that he wrote the Capitol architect to find out why he had cooperated in the unsanctioned move.

McCarthy’s cheerful demeanor rarely broke, but when it did, he looked dazed as the “Nay” votes kept growing throughout the week, from five to 20. How could that be, when everybody loves Kevin? But when everybody vaguely loves you, they might not like you enough to take your side in a gunfight.

McCarthy had one advantage that guaranteed his victory in the wee hours of Saturday morning: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. The race was anti-McCarthy, not pro someone else. McCarthy’s deputy, Representative Steve Scalise, a popular colleague from Louisiana who was gravely wounded at a congressional baseball game in 2017, looked like he might, then like he wouldn’t, his wariness coming from the knowledge that you can’t wound the king, you must kill him or die yourself. His I’ve-been-shot-but-I-hate-gun-control ethos is perfect biography for the GOP conference—as is, perhaps, his alleged quote that he was “David Duke without the baggage.” 

The spectacle of McCarthy losing, and losing, and losing until he got tired of losing is one thing. But knowing that his eventual successor will also live precariously at the hands of radical Republicans is painful. It comes from McCarthy’s failure to stand for anything. 

It wasn’t always this way. Two years ago, he stood up in the House and held the former president responsible for the melee on January 6. But he wanted to be speaker, and so, two weeks later, he flew to Mar-a-Lago to beg for forgiveness. By last night, to attract more votes from the Freedom Caucus, he vowed to dismantle metal detectors at the entrance to the House floor and disband the Ethics Committee. God forbid there should be a mechanism for removing George Santos, the fabulist and McCarthy supporter recently elected from Long Island. 

Were McCarthy wiser, he could have looked to the historically successful speakership of Nancy Pelosi, whose office he’s taken over by adverse possession. She never brought a bill to the floor when she didn’t have the votes, especially one about her election as speaker. She always won on the first ballot. 

There are some grownup Republicans. Just across the way, there’s Mitch McConnell, who lost a scant 10 votes in his reelection as minority leader. If McCarthy glanced at the TV as he was losing another ballot, he would have seen McConnell swanning in Kentucky with President Joe Biden, who was giving him credit for bringing home millions in infrastructure spending, including for the ailing Brent Spence Bridge, the span connecting Cincinnati with Covington, Kentucky. True, McConnell has had an easier go of it, and his competence is perhaps more destructive than McCarthy’s haplessness. He doesn’t have Boebert and Gaetz to deal with, but Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz are naysaying preeners, too. McConnell wisely boasts about not talking to Trump, ticking off the days of silence like an AA member. He’s one year sober. 

McCarthy foreshadowed the chaos to come when he objected to the omnibus spending bill last month. That vote to stymie must-pass legislation showed he would not only allow votes on extremist measures but support them as well. When it comes time to raise the debt ceiling, we’ll go through this all again, with potentially catastrophic results for the economy. Of course, McCarthy will throw all of the House’s investigative might behind unlocking Hunter Biden’s laptop, as if his speakership depends on it, which it does. 

At week’s end, McCarthy turned philosophic: It’s not how you start, he said. It’s how you end.

And end it did. By round 15 he’d given away the store and limped across the finish line, an exhausted but cheerful victor, announcing that he’s leading a unified party and thanking former President Trump for his support.

Come Monday, McCarthy will be made miserable by the same nihilists who forced him to crawl on glass to win. He will have to face the job he debased himself for. As a young man, McCarthy loved his job fighting fires in dry, hot Kern County, but it didn’t prepare him to fight the conflagrations in Washington. As long as his colleagues allow him to stay, McCarthy is a hamster on a wheel, every day a repeat of the miserable day before, only unlike Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the speaker will never grow in the job. Although he’s indulged his extremists in the extreme, they will never trust him. Others will wonder if they sold out at the best price. McCarthy will wake each morning to preside over a chaotic institution made so by him, owing too much to too many who’ve gone there to burn the place down. 

Earlier in the day, McCarthy failed to walk down the hall to the steps of the Capitol to attend a commemoration of the officers, dead and alive, who protected him on January 6 two years ago. “What’s a failed coup?” you might ask on the second anniversary of the terror. It’s practice for another. And it’s hard to see how the wounded new speaker does anything about that—or anything else.

Margaret Carlson

Follow Margaret on Twitter @carlsonmargaret. Margaret Carlson is a columnist at The Daily Beast.