The tendency in the after-action reporting on McCarthy's stunning collapse -- and, make no mistake, it is stunning -- will be to pinpoint a single reason for it. Among the popular ones: rumors of personal problems, an inability to win over the more conservative members of his conference, and his recent flub when talking about the Benghazi select committee.
But, those single-issue theories all miss the broader point here: There is a revolution happening within the Republican party right now. The establishment's hold on power is more tenuous than it has been at any time in recent memory. There is no one currently in office that can claim with any credibility that he or she speaks "for" the party as a whole.
(Careful readers of my work will note that earlier this week I wrote a piece headlined: "The Republican Revolution is Falling Flat." My point in that piece was that the tea party wing had proven to be very good disruptors but not very effective at what happens next. Today's events prove, again, that the conservative side of the GOP can disrupt; the next few days will prove whether they can govern or lead.)
That's a remarkable development since, for decades, the GOP was known as the party that, eventually, got in line. As in: Republicans tended to nominate the guy for president who was perceived as the runner-up the last time around. And, they might grumble but they eventually acceded to the wishes of congressional leaders like Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert. The Democrats were always the rebellious party; the GOP was the follow-the-rules party.
No longer. McCarthy's demise comes hard on the heels of Boehner bowing out of the speakership as a sort of human sacrifice to the tea party right. And it happens as Donald Trump is in the midst of his fourth consecutive month as the Republican front-runner for the party's presidential nomination -- and with Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, two other people who have never held elected office before, running in second and third place, respectively.
Given all of that, it never made any sense for McCarthy to move up to speaker -- or, for that matter, Steve Scalise of Louisiana to move up to majority leader. In a party whose base is sending a clear message that they are sick and tired of the status quo, the idea of simply moving each member of leadership up a slot was insane.
And the argument for McCarthy -- when weighed against the anger and passion against the establishment coursing through the base -- was feeble. The members like him! He texts them on their birthdays! He's been to their districts! Dick Cheney endorsed him! None of that was a match for the fundamental belief -- within the base and among Republican politicians trying to channel that base -- that McCarthy was part of the problem, not the solution. He was doomed to have an ending like this -- no matter the extenuating personal circumstances that might have also influenced the lack of support for him.
If you are Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich, what happened on Thursday in Washington should put a lump in your throat. The Republican establishment has been operating for months -- really since the rise of Trump -- under a belief that, eventually, things will return to "normal" and that the party will put forward an establishment candidate for president. That was the same wrong-headed thinking I heard constantly in the run-up to today's speaker vote: Yeah, sure, conservatives weren't sold on McCarthy, but the alternatives weren't any good or serious, and so he would win. Nope.
This threat to the establishment from the conservative activist base is real. The sooner the establishment realizes it -- and the resignation of Boehner/demise of McCarthy should help them get it -- the better chance they will have to combat it. But, I also think that the possibility exists that the establishment doesn't have the ability to put down this revolution. Which is an amazing thing to ponder as the country gets ready to elect a new president in 13 months time.