Could Democrats have Better Gamed McCarthy’s Woes?


The notion that Democrats could do more than take popcorn-fueled victory laps while Kevin McCarthy twisted in the wind has been much-bruited over the past few days in place where such bruiting is concentrated: social media, comment streams by reporters, and the like.

The most common bruit argues that the Democrats should offer to give McCarthy enough votes to replace those withheld by rebels in his own party, in return for X, Y, and Z from McCarthy. A spineless McCarthy beholden to Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert would instead be a spineless McCarthy beholden to Hakeem Jeffries, a very superior turn of events. This could also be achieved by enough Democrats voting “Present.”

It is easy to understand why some such deal did not immediately spring to life: as long as Republicans thought it might be relatively easy to drag McCarthy across the finish line, they had little incentive to bargain. Even if Democrats wanted to do such a deal, they were better off waiting for Republican despair to increase.

Even though the twisting lasted until McCarthy squeaked into the speakership in Round 15, the Democrats chose not to throw McCarthy a lifeline, for several reasons. There’s the nakedly political calculation that letting McCarthy and his caucus of misfits screw up as thoroughly as possible for the next 22 months is the best way for Democrats to regain control of Congress and perhaps hold the Senate and White House.

There’s also the fact that Democrats loathe McCarthy and don’t trust him. He’s been sucking up to his crazies by threatening Democrats, even suggesting that he would use the Speaker’s gavel to club Nancy Pelosi. They could help him become speaker, and then get double-crossed, earning the fury of their own Democratic voters. It’s also likely that McCarthy would lose Republican votes if Democrats supported him, requiring a very large infusion of Democratic votes. This would leave the Democrats on the hook for the misdeeds of the Republican House of Representatives leading into the next election.

There was another option which was mentioned in the 15th-round nominating speech for Hakeem Jeffries. Instead of bailing out McCarthy, Democrats could recruit a half-dozen Republicans to vote for Jeffries. They could offer quite a bit to woo them: prominent committee seats or even chairs, plums for their districts, even free passes in the next general election. I don’t know if the Democrats tried this, but if so, it came to naught.

The Republicans most likely to respond would be the most centrist, and those are the ones, mostly, who won in Districts where the voters are roughly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. If you’re a Republican in a District that just gave nearly as many votes to your Democratic opponent as it gave to you, you might get some credit for pragmatic bipartisanship, and you might be somewhat less susceptible to being successfully primaried in the next election.

In 2022, six Republicans won by less than 1% of votes cast, and three more won by less than 2%. You’d think that at least a few such narrowly-elected Republicans might jump at the chance to bring home some extra-succulent pork and look like they’re putting country above party, but this ignores a major political reality: Republicans who scored the narrowest victories are squarely centered in the cross-hairs of the Democrats in the next election, as holders of the most flippable seats. By voting to elect Jeffries they’d win the undying enmity of the Republican Party, yet the Democratic Party would still try to flip them out of office sooner or later, unless they switched parties, a move with a low success rate historically.

So despite widespread yearning for some sort of clever move by the Dems to freeze the Republican rebels out of power, no such moves were made. The safer choice was to follow Napoleon’s dictum about not interrupting your opponents while they are screwing up, and that’s what they did.

Tom Corddry
Tom Corddry
Tom is a writer and aspiring flâneur who today provides creative services to mostly technology-centered clients. He led the Encarta team at Microsoft and, long ago, put KZAM radio on the air.


  1. 212 Democrats have turned themselves into NPCs (non playable characters) in the next Congress. Mr. Jeffries’ speech at the end of a very long day was ungracious and bile-filled. Clearly, the main takeaway from this week in the House of Representatives is that the Republicans are seeking to usher in a new era of transparency and dialogue. Proxy voting, back room deals, and lockstep party conformity are no longer standard fare in the peoples’ house.

    • Thanks Glycine Bienne, I hope your optimism about a better new era of transparency and dialogue turns out to be true. I respectfully disagree, however, that proxy voting is always bad–it was an appropriate response to a viral pandemic. I also believe that backroom dealing has a role to play in a representative democracy such as ours, and that lockstep conformity has rarely been standard fare in the House of Representatives–just ask John Boehner, Paul Ryan, or Eric Cantor about that. Lastly, your choice of nom de guerre–Glycine Bienne–is clever: it’s a brand of retro-styled wristwatch. However, using it makes you less transparent than me or the other responders in this conversation.

  2. While I will always appreciate KZAM, the thinking here results in the insurrectionists gaining untold power. We may never know if a deal with Dems would have happened but we traded away the possibility for normalcy for our the short term joy of watching Kevin twist in the wind.

    • Thanks Geoffrey, I never tire of hearing people mention KZAM. In this essay I’m trying to offer analysis of why a deal didn’t happen, rather than defending the fact that it didn’t. Personally, I would have been impressed if the Dems had been able to cut a deal to bring six or more Republicans across the line into a Jeffries-led coalition, We may learn that they tried, or we may never know. I don’t think any amount of effort by the Dems to prop up McCarthy or throw support behind a moderate Republican would have succeeded, and could have made the situation worse. FWIW, the difference between a Republican majority and a Democratic majority in 2022 came down to less than 7,000 votes nationwide.

  3. Quite the s–tshow last night – part junior high hijinks and part Shakespeare tragedy. Some days ago I had thought of the option to find a dozen relatively centrist Republicant’s and make ’em an offer in return for the needed 6 votes for Jeffries. Whether that ever happened we’ll probably never know. An opposite tactic, at the penultimate moment, when McCarthy was hustling to the dais with his pink slip waving in the air, after he’d gotten the last vote he needed, would have been for the Dems to switch their ‘don’t recess’ votes to ‘yes recess’ votes, delaying the whole drama for another three days and letting the would-be speaker twist a bit longer.

  4. Enough Democrats could have voted “present” during any of the earlier votes to let McCarthy take it without forcing him into more damaging deals with the crazies. But that only makes sense if you want a House that is a little less crazy, maybe a little more functional and if you’re willing to signal that, on some issues perhaps (e.g. funding for Ukraine or dealing with the debt ceiling), you can get things done without locked down party votes.

    • Thanks Tim, I think most Democratic Members saw McCarthy as fully in the tank with his MAGA right wing even before his End Times deals, and saw little benefit to salvaging him. As a large and relatively unified minority in a body where the majority party is badly split, they may well be able to exert significant moderating leverage. There are probably a dozen or so Republicans who would be willing to break with Kev and the Kowboys to join Democrats on key votes now and then, or to simply sit out sometimes.

  5. Call me NAIVE, I guess — I assumed the Democrats WERE playing Twister with the Republicans. But I digress from what I most wanted to say– In contrast with G.B., I thought Hakeem Jeffries’ speech was inspiring and dignified, particularly when he thanked Nancy Pelosi for her years of service. I’m disappointed that the history-making sight of the first Black American Vice President and the first Black American to lead a party in Congress were overshadowed in the media by the Republican high jinks. Paul Gregutt, “…hustling to the dais with his pink slip waving in the air” ….perfect description. I wish I’d written that.

    • Thanks Trish. You are not the first to wish you’d written something Paul has written. and yes, Jeffries’ salute to Pelosi was a fine stroke of oratory!

    • Trish, re. Jeffries speech, respectfully, I found his speech offensive! Moreover, his use of ‘projection’ was more than rhetorical flourish but instead a call to man the ramparts.


      ‘projection’ (definition): A sociological phenomenon where members one group of people accuse members of another group of feeling or acting in a manner that they themselves are engaging in, often to divert attention from their own behavior . It is particularly common among groups living with high levels of fear or resentment. (Urban Dictionary)

      • Thanks Glycine, I didn’t hear Jeffries accusing Republicans of being comprehensively on the wrong end of his alphabet of contrasts. He was making a statement of Democratic aspirations. I’m sure many Republicans agree with many of these values (who isn’t in favor of Freedom, Economic Opportunity, Justice, etc?) and he wasn’t claiming otherwise. Some were certainly barbed: “Maturity over Mar-a-Lago’,” for example –but more than a few Republicans, privately or publicly, would agree with that one too. I think Jeffries was rallying his troops as they enter a difficult two years in the minority. He was also sending Kevin McCarthy a message–bully us at your peril. McCarthy has promised his right wing that his deeply divided House majority will bring hellfire and damnation down upon the Democrats. Jeffries was reminding him that he would be facing a resourceful, energized and unified opponent.

      • He delivers 15 minutes of inspiration, calling on Americans to unite together, and spends less than one minute on his alphabet. The only things that shocked me about this speech were the loud and raucous boos coming, I have no doubt, from Republicans, even when he talked about voting rights over voter suppression.

  6. That anybody could think the Republicans in the House of Representatives want to govern, that they want ‘transparency and dialog,’ strikes me as disingenuous, to say the least. Somebody may know the details of what McCarthy ‘gave away’ — AKA concessions — to the far right of his party matters more than what was said publicly. We’ll learn soon enough. Meantime, the Republicans received a lot of attention from the media, in terms of what passed as ‘reporting’ and much commentary. The longer the spectacle continued, the more it disgusted me.

  7. I doubt the GOP would have welcomed Democrats’ help in electing a Speaker, but the D’s could have done so on their own, releasing members to vote “present.” Instead, they retreated into partisan smugness. As a result, McCarthy had to yield to conservative wishes and empowered the Freedom Caucus. While apportioning blame, remember that Pramila Jayapal pulled off much the same hostage-taking stunt in the Democratic caucus, refusing to provide the votes for the infrastructure bill in hopes of a whopping bill of goodies.

    • Thanks David. For Democrats to have created a majority for McCarthy before his final plunge into the pit would have meant getting the total number of counted voters down below 400, since McCarthy was sitting at 200. With between 432 and 434 Members present in the house, that would have required 33-35 Democrats to vote “Present.” That’s a lot! Plus, this assumes that the Republicans would have watched this scheme unfold and done nothing. I believe quite a few Republicans would have bolted from McCarthy if such a play by the Dems began to unfold. The Freedom Caucus is thought to number around 40-45 members, of which only half were the 20 insurgents. I think another 20 would have joined the insurgency, bringing McCarthy’s vote total down to ~180. In that case, another 40 Democrats would have had to vote Present to help McCarthy win. I can’t imagine 75 Democrats voting Present to help McCarthy win in the faint hope that he’d be a better Speaker as a result.

  8. There was no realistic scenario where Rs would have crossed over to vote for Jeffries, even the couple handfuls of less conservative ones. To have done so would have been political suicide, for the reason Tom mentioned above.

    There was also very little chance that Dems would ever affirmatively support McCarthy, given his track record and his allegiance to Trump, no matter what concessions he might have been willing to offer. It would have been a bridge too far for the Democratic base, and certainly for its more polarized progressive wing. And, indeed, this is a case where the base is correct: McCarthy is an odious and feckless figure, a completely partisan creature of the Republican tribe, who has zero demonstrated interest in working collaboratively with Democrats.

    The most plausible alternative scenario to what happened last night — McCarthy getting across the finish line by abjectly capitulating to the fringe right — would have involved Democrats en masse, or at least a significant supermajority of Dems, crossing over to join with maybe a couple dozen (that’s optimistic, but within the realm of the plausible) less polarized Rs to support one of a handful of actual Republican moderates, in exchange for parity of membership on congressional committees. So far as we know at present, Jeffries never seriously pursued this, which if so is a missed opportunity. A sane Republican Speaker (elected primarily by Ds) committed to centrist, bipartisan governance (driven primarily by Democratic votes) would have been an infinitely better result for the country — and probably better politically for Democrats — than the current status quo of chaos, instability, and bitter, empty partisan point scoring, even if Republicans end up taking the lion’s share of the blame for the inevitable governing fiasco that we are going to live through over the next two years.

  9. Thanks Sandeep. I agree, a moderate R speaker propped up by a lotta Ds with a power-sharing deal would have been better than what we’re going to get, but I think it could only have come to pass if McCarthy had failed in Round 15. At that point moderate Rs might have begun to believe that McCarthy had permanently fallen short, and a Jeffries charm offensive over the weekend might have had a small chance to succeed.

  10. Best call was the actual ending – the R’s twisting themselves into knots, even tossing in a near scuffle we haven’t seen in a least a century. Whether McCarthy is as hamstrung by his giveaways as the punditry voices claim we’ll see; it may rather give the D’s fits with its focus on borders, impeachments threats, the president’s son, and attempts to undermine the Jan. 6 conclusions. In short, another ugly political season.

  11. No cause for gloating by Democrats as the whole four-day public display of how low McCarthy would go to gain the gavel bodes poorly for effective governance in the next two years. I watched with riveted attention and was a little less than horrified by McCarthy’s acceptance speech (he didn’t prioritize investigating Hunter Biden or mention Trump) and was left with hope the few sensible and traditional House Republicans will sideline the whackos to put forth what both sides can agree on.

  12. Images I wish I could forget: Matt Gaetz enthusiastically greeting George Santos shoulder in the House Chamber; Kevin McCarthy groveling; and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s fan-girl pose, holding high her cell phone with DT on screen. As Dana Bush noted, it was happening on the 2nd anniversary of the Trump-engineered Insurrection, too.

    • One of the goals of the insurrectionists this time is to rewrite the history of the insurrection two years ago. Many in the Freedom Caucus are performing an inversion of Clausewitz’s “War is a continuation of policy with other means.” This week saw politics as a continuation of a violent assault by other means.

  13. I for one, as someone who worked for a GOP MOC in the 1970s, thought Jeffries speech was fabulous and inspirational. The current crop of GOP MOC are, for the most part, performative vitriolic spewing children, who are not aging well. And McCarthy, whose whole political life has been geared to this moment, clearly doesn’t know how to manage his own caucus much less be an effective arm of the three party government. He is no Nancy Pelosi, Carl Albert, or even minority leader Gerald Ford. The House will now engage in endless and meaningless “investigations” of Hunter Biden (a pathetic attempt to get at a loving father of an addicted son….which, how many families in America have dealt with addiction and unconditional but not enabling love?), of a scientist who tried to mitigate a pandemic (Fauci) and the so-called “deep state,” (which, how much egg on the GOP faces when they find the deep-state in the FBI and military are actually supporters of the GOP?). I continue to grieve for a country that I love deeply but feel this attempt to shove us back to a white male dominated Christian 1950s is not only sad, but scary. Hopefully the GOP “led” House agenda will backfire…but in 2024 we will, again, hear about trans athletes, drag queen groomers and, wait for it, the border and the “death of Christmas.” Sigh

  14. And …. the House Republicans vote in as Speaker a deeply conservative lawmaker, who actively voted to overturn the 2020 election. Way to go, House Democrats! who had a chance to keep the flawed Kevin McCarthy …. but chose to draw a line in the sand, instead. You paid him back for being mean to you, and look who you have now. Do you STILL think Nancy Pelosi was too old, too past her self date?


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