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The Shakespearean Tragedy of Kevin McCarthy, Prince of Washington

Warring factions, a man possessed by naked ambition, a tragic fall from grace. Where have we seen this play before?

To be or not to be Speaker of the House. To be it today, or tomorrow night, or next week, or not at all. That was doubtless the question gnawing at Kevin McCarthy’s mind this week as the Republican Party he worked so hard to woo denied him the speaker’s chair he believed he’d earned again and again and again. For eight terms, he’d waited, dutifully crafting a script that would allow him to seize power over the lower chamber, only for a rebellious band of Republicans to conveniently forget the lines he’d asked them to memorize. The performance turned chaotic, humiliating, positively Elizabethan. And that was just Act One.

So often in the universe of official Washington’s backroom deals and slippery allegiances, fair is foul, and foul is fair. But the intraparty drama that unfolded here this week was near without precedent in modern history: A speaker election had not stretched on for this many ballots since 1859, when the nation careened into a civil war. To make sense of the nonsensical, Washington’s chattering class — not to mention the thousands of Americans who turned to C-SPAN to follow the tragedy on the Hill — found themselves falling back on William Shakespeare’s timeless works.
“If I were McCarthy,” tweeted Robin Young, the co-host of NPR’s “Here and Now,” “I’d check my tea for hemlock,” a reference to the poisonous herb used to make the witch’s brew that sets in motion Macbeth’s tragic downfall. Added Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post: “Macbeth must kill and keep killing to slake his ambition. McCarthy must concede and concede even more to slake his own.”Like the Scottish protagonist, McCarthy’s preferred method of consolidating power was to keep the characters in his caucus happy. He did that by bowing to the pressures of its most boisterous members, even if their demands weren’t exactly in the best interest of the party — or the country. Other Shakespearean parallels abound. Although Young and Marcus opted for Macbeth, it was also hard not to think of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s recounting of the most famous betrayal of all time. We watched as the same 20 legislators (later down to six and then just one) stabbed a stoic McCarthy on the House floor, consumed by the belief that a protracted, four-day vote was the only possible way to prevent the 57-year-old GOP leader from becoming a tyrant.
We wondered whether a trusted right-hand man like Steve Scalise would suddenly provide a made-for-theater “et tu, Brute?” moment, announcing his own bid for the speakership. (Jim Jordan of Ohio did sing McCarthy’s praises as he nominated him for speaker on the second ballot, only to become a contender for the gavel when Matt Gaetz nominated him in short order.)

Then there was the comic relief — much like the tension breaker in Julius Caesar — of Democrats bringing out the popcorn machine as the hours and days yawned on. As they lugged popcorn bags through the halls of Congress, they reminded the audience of that play’s punny cobbler, that “mender of bad soles.”
It may be an exercise in futility to attempt to find a one-to-one comparison between real life and the page. No one Shakespearean play can best capture the bedlam of this week. There is a bit of the Bard in all of it. Shakespeare’s works may be most instructive because of his tragic heroes, figures possessed by naked ambition who, by the final act, have fallen from grace in more ways than one. Is McCarthy King Lear, who trusted the empty words of those who quickly turned their backs on him, eventually leading to his untimely and lonely demise? Is he instead Hamlet, staring into the eyes of a skull at arm’s length, trying to avenge the ghost of Donald Trump? Or do we return to Macbeth, the ambitious and charismatic court insider who couldn’t see the daggers in men’s smiles? Amid all these theatrics, it’s easy to forget that offstage, the House’s failure to elect a leader has real-life consequences. On it depends the swearing in of all 435 members of the House (without whom there is indeed no House of Representatives), the sharing of intelligence information between the White House and the speaker (who’d become president if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were incapacitated) and the steady flow of casework that Hill staffers manage for everyday constituents. No bills passed by the local D.C. Council can become law. “The rest of the world is looking” to see if we can “get our act together,” Biden told reporters, calling the saga “embarrassing.” But if Shakespeare’s hard-to-decipher iambic pentameter has endured for more than 400 years, it’s also because his words reckon with the one constant that has bedeviled humanity at every turn of history: power. And it was power that McCarthy wanted and power that a tenth of the House GOP caucus wanted to wrest from him. The 20 mutineers, who included some members of the Tea Party movement along with obstreperous newcomers, put forth very little discussion of policy issues, homing in on securing procedural maneuvers instead. Among the reported concessions: the rabble-rousers could trigger a no-confidence vote to dethrone McCarthy with the say-so of only one Republican; debt-ceiling hikes would have to be paired with austerity measures; and arch-conservatives would be guaranteed three seats on the powerful House Rules Committee. The compromises mean that McCarthy will begin his term having drunk from a poisoned chalice.