McCarthy’s humiliation is historic, but it’s not out of keeping with a Republican party whose turbulent rule over the House of Representatives has been marred by crisis, coup attempts, and criminality since the 1990s.
The “Republican Revolution” of 1994 ended 40 years of Democratic dominance in the House. But it installed a party whose ideological hostility to government has regularly spilled over into an open hostility toward governing — as reflected by myriad shutdowns and destructive, high-stakes games of chicken with the full-faith-and-credit of the United States government on the line.
Seen through this lens, the drama surrounding McCarthy is not a major departure; rather, it’s par for the course for a party that’s been Fucking Around and Finding Out since 1994. Below is a look back at the GOP’s culture of chaos in the House since the party’s return from the political wilderness in the Cinton era.
Tenure: Gingrich served as Speaker from 1995 to 1999, in a tumultuous rule marked by a pair of government shutdowns (lasting nearly a month combined), dozens of ethics complaints, an attempted leadership coup by fellow Republicans, and a party-line impeachment vote against Bill Clinton for lying about sexual infidelity — even as Gingrich himself was cheating on his then-second wife with his now-third wife.
Exit: The polarizing Gingrich expected the Clinton impeachment drama would vault the GOP to new heights in the House. Republicans instead suffered historic losses in the 1998 midterms and Gingrich — unable to contain the division in his ranks — resigned, insisting: “I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.”
Where is he now: Trying to act as the voice of reason, as though he didn’t sow the wind. “The choice,” he told Fox News this week, “is Kevin McCarthy or chaos.”
Tenure: Livingston was Gingrich’s heir apparent, and had lined up the votes to be elected Speaker in late 1998. But Livingston’s reign was scuttled before it began after Hustler publisher Larry Flynt put out a $1 million bounty for tips about GOP leaders having sex outside of their marriages.
Exit: Livingston — who’d demanded Clinton resign — dropped his Speaker bid and soon resigned from Congress in 1999 after confessing to his colleagues, “I very much regret having to tell you that I’ve been Flynted.”
Where are they now: After an unsuccessful bid for governor of Louisiana, he founded the Livingston Group, a major D.C. lobbyist shop.
Tenure: The doughy former wrestling coach seized power after the Gingrich and Livingston debacles. Hastert offered a seemingly bland face for the GOP’s hardline politics — though he was widely viewed as a figurehead, with majority leader Tom DeLay (see below) wielding actual authority. In a polarizing move, the Speaker instituted the “Hastert Rule,” in which legislation would only advance in the House if it were supported by a majority of the majority party, scuttling bipartisan dealmaking.
Exit: The longest-serving GOP Speaker, Hastert resigned from the House after Democrats won the chamber in 2006.
Where are they now: Hastert is a convicted child molester; he served more than a year in prison for the serial sexual abuse of boys on his wrestling team. Hastert also pleaded guilty to financial crimes related to the hush money he paid to try to keep the sex abuse under wraps.
Tenure: Known as “The Hammer,” DeLay was seen as too partisan to become Speaker but acted as the House GOP’s true center of power in the Hastert era, serving first as whip and, from 2002, as Majority Leader. DeLay launched the K-Street project, helping turn the GOP House into a service organization for lobbying interests, culminating in the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal.
Exit: In 2005, DeLay was indicted on campaign money-laundering charges and exited Congress a year later. He was convicted of the charges in 2011, but was ultimately acquitted on appeal.
Where are they now: In his post-political life, DeLay competed on Dancing with the Stars and founded a lobby shop.
Tenure: An architect with Gingrich of the 1994 Revolution, Boehner was one of the coup plotters who tried to remove Newt just three years later. Tight with lobbyists, Boehner infamously handed out checks from Big Tobacco to fellow members on the House floor. Amid the fallout of the DeLay scandal, Boehner became majority leader in 2006 after promising reform — particularly an end to pork-barrel spending in individual districts, known as earmarks. The lurch toward good government was bad for governance, however, as radicals elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 had little incentive to play nice with leadership to get money for pet projects. This left Boehner’s speakership, from 2011 to 2015 rocked by far-right insurgents from the Freedom Caucus who put ideological purity over legislative accomplishment.
Exit: Boehner was finally ousted by Freedom Caucus members, led by Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, in 2015 after a series of battles in which Boehner foiled the chaos agents determined to defund the government. Boehner’s ally Peter King called it “a victory for the crazies.”
Where are they now: On leaving office, Boehner joined the board of Reynolds tobacco and is now a cannabis lobbyist. He was last seen tearing up in a speech praising outgoing Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Tenure: Ryan was the House’s budget wonk, who became a leading GOP figure when he was chosen by Mitt Romney to run as vice president in the 2012 election. Ryan was reluctant to take over as Speaker from Boehner, but proved the only unity candidate in the fractured caucus. With a deal from the Freedom Caucus to stop bucking party-line votes essential for legislating, Ryan wrangled the GOP House in the early Trump era, securing enormous tax cuts for the wealthiest corporations.
Exit: In a normal party Ryan would still be in office, taking up the Speaker’s gavel surrendered to Pelosi in 2018. But Ryan quit the job — and Congress — in 2018 at the age of 48, rightly diagnosing that his policy-wonk brand of politics had little future in the populist MAGA age.
Where are they now: On his exit from Congress, Ryan leaped into business with the Murdochs, taking a board seat on the Fox Corporation. He is also a vice chairman of Teneo, a global consulting firm.
Tenure: McCarthy became House Whip after the 2010 Tea Party election, and leaped into the majority leader post in 2014 when Eric Cantor exited after a shocking GOP primary loss in 2014. When Boehner was toppled, McCarthy was next in line, but withdrew from consideration after a gaffe (admitting the Benghazi investigation was spun up to hurt Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers) and rumored personal indiscretions. Back then, McCarthy insisted the party needed “a fresh face” and conceded, “I am not that guy.” But having led the GOP in the minority after Ryan’s retirement, and through the chaos of Jan. 6, McCarthy easily won the GOP nomination to the speakership last year. He declared himself Speaker-elect, and even moved into the Speaker’s chambers this week — despite having failed to corral the needed votes from long-time detractors in the Freedom Caucus
Exit: To be determined.
Where are they now: McCarthy can be found on the House floor grinning and bearing serial and historic humiliation, having lost 11 votes (so far) for his coveted Speakership post.