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Column: McCarthy devoured by the tiger he created

Winston Churchill warned, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” Ousted U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy should have listened.

That’s apparently what Churchill said, anyway. We do know for certain that actor Gary Oldman, playing the British leader, said it forcefully in the movie “Darkest Hour.” Churchill was incredulous that anyone would consider negotiating with Adolf Hitler.

McCarthy’s tiger that gobbled him up was a political animal hungry for attention, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), supported by a small band of hard-right Republican mutineers. They complained that the GOP speaker reached across the aisle too often and dealt with the opposition party — you know, like the founders envisioned when they created our democratic form of government.

We’re built for bipartisan compromise in this country or little that’s important gets done in government — at least when the two sides are closely matched as they have been in Washington in recent years.

“I don’t regret standing up for choosing governance over grievance,” McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) told reporters immediately after being dumped last week. “Our government is designed to find compromise. I don’t regret my efforts to build coalitions and find solutions. I was raised to solve problems, not create them.”

This sounded like the McCarthy that Sacramento pols remember from 20 years ago — the widely respected, pragmatic, moderate young minority leader of the California state Assembly. Many have wondered whatever happened to that guy because the Washington McCarthy seems to have little resemblance.

But let’s be realistic. Sacramento also has little resemblance to Washington, especially these days. More on that below.

McCarthy stuck his head in the tiger’s mouth when he agreed to accept House rules that proved fatal. This was his price for securing enough right-wing votes to be elected speaker in January.

One particularly lethal rule allowed just a single House member to call for a vote to boot the speaker. Gaetz had insisted on the one-vote rule and ultimately used it to devour McCarthy.

There’s another Churchill quote that’s relevant to McCarthy’s downfall. The statesman said: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”

McCarthy made concession after concession in a desperate effort to appease GOP hard-liners and save his speakership. He fed the crocodile a steady diet of Democrats before getting eaten himself.

In the end, 208 Democrats joined eight Republicans — fewer than 4% of the GOP membership — in chomping down on McCarthy.

Would Democrats have saved McCarthy if he hadn’t taken such cheap shots at them?

Placating hard-liners, McCarthy launched a frivolous impeachment inquiry against President Biden. And bowing to MAGA Republicans, the speaker allowed a rare House censure of Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) for his role in trying to uncover alleged collusion between former President Trump and Russia. Schiff also had led the first impeachment prosecution against Trump. Schiff and other Democrats were knocked off committees.

On the good government side, McCarthy compromised with Biden and Democrats twice to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its debt and to keep government doors open. That’s what irked the GOP renegades.

On balance, didn’t McCarthy deserve to be spared by Democrats?

“You can’t blame Democrats for voting against McCarthy,” says Jim Brulte, a former California state Republican chairman and GOP leader in both legislative houses. “When you’re in the minority and the majority is going to war against itself, you sit back and let them do it.”

Yes, that’s politics. If you’re given a chance to make the other side look inept and stupid, you seize it.

But longtime Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who later became mayor of San Francisco, told me that Democrats “should have been fighting on behalf of McCarthy against those right-wing crazy people” because his successor is bound to be worse.

“Democrats must have been out to lunch when they took their position,” Brown says.

But McCarthy acquired a reputation in Washington as a leader who couldn’t be trusted. He’d make deals and break them. That’s about the worst sin there is in a legislative body.

“We don’t trust him. The members don’t trust him. His word isn’t worth anything,” Schiff told reporters.

You never heard that said about McCarthy in Sacramento. He got along with everyone.

“Kevin was a team player,” says Brulte, who was Senate GOP leader when McCarthy headed Assembly Republicans. “He was always trying to keep people together. He was a fabulous leader when I worked with him.”

“Kevin threw his whole life into being leader,” recalls political consultant Rob Stutzman, who was then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s communications director when McCarthy was minority leader. “He brought a sophistication of political leadership that I hadn’t seen before, recruiting candidates and raising money.”

But in Sacramento, McCarthy wasn’t the speaker. He was the minority leader. And he didn’t have to lead a rabid pack of ideologues.

“His experience in Sacramento didn’t transfer over as well as it could have in Washington,” notes Fabian Nunez, who was the Democratic Assembly speaker when McCarthy was minority leader. “I thought he was very formidable in Sacramento.”

As Assembly minority leader, McCarthy benefited from serving with a popular Republican governor. Schwarzenegger enhanced McCarthy’s relevance and influence.

In Congress as minority leader, McCarthy was smothered by Trump and felt compelled to incessantly kiss his ring. That earned him disrespect among Democrats.

Additionally, the nation is plagued and Congress is crippled today by political polarization that wasn’t nearly as severe 20 years ago.

McCarthy made the history books by becoming the 55th speaker, achieving a career dream. Then it turned into a nightmare when he made even bigger history: becoming the first speaker to be fired by a vote of House members.

Ambition got the best of him. It prompted him to stick his head in the tiger’s mouth.

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