Yes, it was supposed to be bad for Kevin McCarthy, but not this bad.
As anyone who has been reading my dispatches since September well knows, McCarthy’s speakership only ever seemed fully secured among card-carrying members of the conventional wisdom class, those who recited and repeated to one another the familiar consensual hallucinations of the day: that hardline “No” voters Andy Biggs, Ralph Norman and Matt Rosendale could be bargained with; that Donald Trump pushed for McCarthy; and so forth. Even former House Freedom Caucus leader Mick Mulvaney recalled to me how, back in his day, hardliners had wimped out at the very last minute during his attempted coup against John Boehner, in 2013. Mulvaney thought the Never Kevins would lose their mettle when it came down to shouting another name on the floor.
As they courted conservative media icons, McCarthy’s team reciprocated the false courage. They insisted that it was all under control—those five persnickety “No” votes, the “saboteurs” as Mark Levin dubbed them, would eventually get with the program. McCarthy, the ultimate vote whipper, would make the math work. And yet it turns out, of course, that the situation was far bleaker than they ever let on. “It’s a big black eye for Republicans. We come into office, we can’t govern or pick a speaker,” said a senior Hill Republican. “It’s complete chaos.”