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McCarthy Shockwave in America

Oct 24, 2023
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University
  • Tan Yannan

    Research Assistant of U.S.-Europe Program at Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University


A handful of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives ousted Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Oct 3, as party infighting plunged Congress into further chaos just days after it narrowly averted a government shutdown.

On Oct. 3, the U.S. House of Representatives voted narrowly to remove Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The vote, unprecedented in U.S. history, sent shockwaves across the political landscape and led to a congressional deadlock. On Oct. 20, Jim Jordan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, failed in the third round of voting to be elected speaker — the second nominee to be rejected after Steve Scalise (R-LA) withdrew from the race. Thus, the election for House speaker, second in the line of presidential succession, is back to the drawing board.

Although unsuccessful, Jordan’s nomination by the House Republican majority could still mark a new milestone in his party’s ideological development. A radical member of the political right wing, Jordan has never held a leadership position in the House. After more than eight years in office, he has never passed a bill of his own. He has consistently opposed providing military aid to Ukraine and staunchly adheres to Spartan fiscal ideals.

If Jordan is elected — now an unlikely prospect, as his margin of defeat keeps growing with each successive vote — a government shutdown could be inevitable. But at least 10 members of the House have explicitly or indirectly said they will compete for the speaker’s gavel. Republican politicians seem to be taking turns to test their influence. 

Political chessboard 

The removal of McCarthy as speaker wasn’t entirely unexpected. Despite his election after 15 rounds of voting, McCarthy had already compromised within the party and negotiated extensively. New congressional rules imposed by Republicans over Democratic objections allow a single member to put forward a motion to vacate. In this case, that member was ultra-radical Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. It’s a rule that invites instability to infect in a key government body.

However, beyond the procedural rules, the core reason for McCarthy’s ousting lies in the multilayered divisions and political polarization within the current Republican Party. On one hand, conflicts between the Donald Trump wing and the more responsible institutionalists — a fight that is basically between moderates and extremists — have escalated over differences in spending and increasingly heated elections. McCarthy was seen by members of his party as selling out to Democrats by making deals that were undoubtedly seen as unprincipled by the right-wing radicals.

Since the Republicans took control of Congress after the midterm elections, the struggle over legislative priorities has intensified. McCarthy was often indecisive in decision-making, whether to prioritize substantive legislation such as parental rights and border security or prioritize investigations and oversight of President Joe Biden and his family, as these issues remain contentious. McCarthy found himself in a challenging position, having to delicately walk the line between appeasing restless extremists and advancing the Republican agenda.

Even with McCarthy’s exit, the incoming speaker will face a similar, if not more challenging, predicament. Like McCarthy as to the difficulty of uniting Republicans, the party finds it hard to secure the comprehensive support of 217 votes. So internal and external pressures are inevitable.

The frequent occurrence of shocking events, such as the prosecution of a former president and the removal of a speaker, has added to the crisis within the Republican Party. Some members are actively pushing for the two main candidates within the party to form a Scalise-Jordan leadership team, a solution they feel would bridge the gap between House factions.

On the Democratic side, the vacancy in the speaker’s chair poses thornier issues, including challenges such as the Biden administration’s desire to reach an agreement with Congress to maintain military aid to Ukraine, secure support for Israel and avoid a government shutdown. Thus, on one hand, the Democratic Party has remained united in its opposition to the extremist Jordan for House speaker. On the other hand, some Democratic groups have written to the current acting speaker, Patrick McHenry, stating their willingness to support an explicit temporary expansion of his powers so that the House can address urgent bills, including government funding and foreign policy matters. They are even open to reaching out to moderate Republicans in the quest for a temporary alliance to swiftly resolve the speaker’s race. However, the power expansion proposal has not been enacted because of strong objections from the far right wing of the Republican Party. Top Republicans have all indicated there’s no bipartisan cooperation with Democrats. While the Republicans have enough votes to control the House, they are thwarted by their own internal squabbling.

Behind the political maneuvering, the most glaring aspect of American political polarization is the increased uncertainty and uncontrollability within its institutional framework. Previously held principles and agreements of democratic politics are being overridden and shattered one by one, with the political pendulum wavering between division and reconciliation. 

2024 Election landscape 

The removal of McCarthy has brought about many ripples in the lead-up to the 2024 U.S. elections.

First, it is feared that the structural asymmetry of election issues will intensify. Topics currently championed by the Democratic Party, such as abortion rights and racial equity, are pivotal national concerns. However, with the loss of the House, the Democrats have lost an influential platform to press their agenda. If extreme candidates are elected to House leadership roles, the Republicans’ choice of issues will narrow further, possibly leading to a situation of “preaching to the choir” — a slice of the electorate — in future elections.

Second, the so-called Trump effect faces yet another new test. Trump’s endorsement has played a significant role in past House leadership elections. Jim Jordan, had the support of both Trump and McCarthy, but his own more radical positions were roundly rejected by a majority of House members.

Jordan’s loss does not mean the end of Trump’s influence, however. Having failed to stand up for the former president during the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Trump has privately indicated that he does not support the possible candidacy for House speaker Tom Emmer, who is the current House Majority Whip. This statement will undoubtedly render the outcome of future House votes even more uncertain. One of the new speaker’s top priorities will be to reconcile the continuing impact of Trumpism.

Although variables are ever present, fundraising and candidates remain among the few controllable factors in today’s U.S. political landscape. RealClearPolitics surveys indicate that several Republican House candidates, including those in California, are in strong positions. Thus, after his removal, McCarthy, who is the most successful Republican fundraiser, announced his intention to remain in Congress, assisting other Republican candidates in their campaigns to ensure stable campaign funding. 

Spillover shock in China-U.S. relations 

While the McCarthy era was brief, it left behind a substantial political legacy related to China, and its continuation and future progression are shrouded in uncertainty. Alignment of a successor’s position on China with that of McCarthy is questionable, potentially introducing new risk factors in China-related matters. Currently, of the prominent candidates to succeed McCarthy, many are his allies, but they have differing views when it comes to specific concerns regarding “China risks.” If other members assume power, areas such as China-U.S. educational exchanges and digital finance, among other emerging battlegrounds, may face disruptions.

Regardless who eventually becomes the speaker of the House, McCarthy’s handling of China-related issues during his tenure may serve as a reference for his successor. The political role of China-related issues and policies toward China will continue to grow in the future. McCarthy, during his term, leveraged China-related topics to build a reliable political image and to consolidate bipartisan consensus in the House while making deals with the Democrats on other matters. In the short term, the complex internal disputes within the Republican Party may persist, and if China issues continue to be stoked, China-U.S. relations may yet face challenges at the congressional level.

Additionally, the Republican Party has repeatedly criticized the current Democratic Party for being “soft” on China and has openly resisted the thawing of China-U.S. relations. To appease hardliners and unite on foreign policy ahead of the 2024 elections, the political maneuvering space for cooperation between the new speaker and the Democrats has already been exhausted. This may result in yet more constraints and disruptions to the Biden administration’s China policy and foreign strategy.

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