Kevin McCarthy's real crime: He spoke the truth about Benghazi

The presumptive speaker inadvertently exposed the GOP farce for what it was -- and it was all downhill from there

Published October 8, 2015 7:07PM (EDT)

  (AP/Molly Riley)
(AP/Molly Riley)

In case it wasn’t already clear, the wingnuts in Congress have won. John Boehner was too sane and diplomatic for their liking, so they forced him to an early retirement. Now it appears they’ve given Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker-in-waiting, the boot.

McCarthy's downfall began when he angered Republicans by committing the unpardonable sin of admitting what most people outside the conservative echo chamber already knew, which is that Benghazi was a manufactured non-scandal designed to taint Hillary Clinton. Conservatives in the House were none too pleased with McCarthy’s candor. He gifted Hillary Clinton a much-needed talking point and exposed the GOP's political farce. The backlash was fierce and immediate.

Sensing an opening from the right, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who spearheaded his own farce last week with the Planned Parenthood hearing, recently entered the race for Speaker. In an interview with Politico over the weekend, Chaffetz, an early congressional backer of the Tea Party movement, suggested that McCarthy wasn't conservative enough to get the votes he needed: “There are very few people who can win the support of our hardcore conservatives and yet be palatable to our more moderate members. The question is who can help unite the party and bridge the divide and I hope they see me as the person that will give everyone a fair shake.” Chaffetz added that while McCarthy may have won the secret-ballot conference vote, he would’ve struggled on the floor vote, where members must declare their position.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose members called for Boehner’s resignation, also pushed back against McCarthy’s nomination. They endorsed Rep. Daniel Webster, a Republican from Florida, for Speaker. The Webster endorsement was likely a strategic move to siphon off some of the conservative votes that McCarthy needed to win the Speakership. Rep. Thomas Massie, a leading House conservative, confirmed that the right needed a less moderate alternative to McCarthy, at least for the initial floor vote. You don’t “want to go home and tell your constituents you voted for Boehner’s right-hand man,” Massie said. “It’s easier to do that in a private, secret ballot behind closed doors.”

Conservatives in Congress want a purist, someone who will walk the party and the country off a cliff before he gives even an inch. But that’s not realistic, and that’s not how serious people govern. Anyone who serves as Speaker of the House will, eventually, see that compromise is inevitable. Since the wingnuts in Congress don’t believe in compromise, no one will ever be good or conservative enough for them.

They may have won a small victory here, but they’ll still lose in the long run. McCarthy is just the latest casualty of the Wingnut Caucus. The Democrats will continue to win the policy battles, as they have since Obama was elected, while the Republican hardliners in the House keep scrambling to out-conservative one another. That may play well with the base, but it’s not how legislation gets done.

And it’s certainly not how national elections are won.

McCarthy Drops Speaker Bid. Now What?

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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