Dec 11, 2023

Kevin McCarthy announces retirement.

Kevin McCarthy speaking. Image: USDA Forest Service photo by Tanya E. Flores.
Kevin McCarthy speaking. Image: USDA Forest Service photo by Tanya E. Flores.

Plus, some reactions to Friday's newsletter.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Kevin McCarthy says goodbye to Congress. Plus, reactions to Friday's post and a question about artificial intelligence.


In last week's article on Henry Kissinger, we correctly noted that Henry Kissinger served under Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon — except for in one place, right at the top of the article, where we erroneously said he served under Ronald Reagan. Given how many presidents Kissinger informally advised it is no surprise that very few people caught this error, but it was a mistake nonetheless.

This is our 95th correction in Tangle's 226-week history and our first correction since December 6th. We track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Friday's newsletter.

On Friday, I published 10 thoughts about what is going on in Israel right now. The piece generated a lot of strong feelings, mostly positive, though some people unsubscribed or wrote in with some lengthy criticisms. At the urging of many readers, I've decided to drop the paywall and make the whole piece public. All I ask is that if you disagree, don’t unsubscribe, and if you enjoy it, please consider upgrading your subscription. Here is some feedback that caught my eye:

  • "I am ashamed to say I have been putting off subscribing despite finding your writing to be the most insightful, informative, and comforting I have read on this topic and most topics. I was so curious about today's newsletter that I decided to finally subscribe and I am so glad I did. This is by far the best reflection I have read on this issue."
  • "You're really encouraging a new generation here to keep reading and thinking instead of being polarized. You're doing great work here."
  • "I just listened to today’s podcast, 10 thoughts, and I am standing in my kitchen with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Your struggle to present truth in an unbiased way seems like a Herculean task... Your podcast today reminded me to hold on to my humanity and Christian values and view everyone who is being harmed in this conflict with compassion."

You can read the story here.

Quick hits.

  1. The Texas Supreme Court stayed a lower court ruling that would have allowed a Dallas woman to receive an abortion despite the state's new bans on the procedure. A 31-year-old woman sought an abortion after learning her unborn baby was at high risk for Edwards syndrome, which results in fetal loss in over 80% of cases. Texas argued the case does not meet medical requirements for an exemption. (The ruling)
  2. University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill resigned on Saturday after backlash over her remarks during a congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus. (The resignation)
  3. Israel ordered civilians to evacuate Khan Younis in southern Gaza as it pushed into the center of Gaza’s second largest city. (The evacuation) Separately, Israel is accused of using white phosphorus in an October attack in Lebanon. (The accusations) Meanwhile, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, causing the vote to fail 13-1. (The veto)
  4. Elon Musk reinstated the account of Alex Jones on X (formerly Twitter) after a user poll. (The reinstatement)
  5. A federal appeals court upheld and narrowed the gag order against President Trump in his 2020 election case, allowing him to directly criticize special counsel Jack Smith. (The ruling)

Today's topic.

Kevin McCarthy. The California Republican and former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced last week that he will be retiring from Congress at the end of December. McCarthy, 58, announced his plans in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, where he boasted about leading Republicans to a House majority twice, passing border security legislation, keeping the government open, and reducing the deficit. He also pledged to continue recruiting America's "best and brightest" to run for office.

McCarthy, first elected to the House in 2006, announced his departure after a surprising fall from grace. He was elected House Speaker in January, after a tumultuous 15 rounds of voting, and was then ousted in October, after his decision to pass a short-term funding bill to avoid a debt ceiling breach. McCarthy’s retirement is an unexpected end to his career in Congress, where over the course of 16 years he progressed from Majority Whip to Majority Leader and then Speaker. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will be responsible for setting a special election date to fill his seat.

McCarthy's departure from Congress has set off a number of subplots heading into the 2024 election, when Republicans will be defending a slim House majority. For starters, five Republicans up for reelection in McCarthy’s home state of California are holding seats in districts Biden won in 2020. Further, McCarthy has been one of the party's most prolific fundraisers, meaning Republicans will have to find someone else to bring in donations without him campaigning.

And of course, many are curious to see if McCarthy will recruit challengers to run against some of the House Republicans — like Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz — who ousted him as speaker. McCarthy has already inserted himself into the 2024 presidential race, warning Donald Trump that voters aren't interested in a campaign of retribution. 

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to McCarthy's announcement from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left calls McCarthy’s resignation a fitting end to a disgraceful career. 
  • Some criticize him for choosing not to serve out his term and suggest he is bailing on his constituents.
  • Others focus on McCarthy’s fealty to Trump and say that will define his legacy.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board said McCarthy’s resignation is “poetic justice for the Trump apologist.”

“It’s not surprising that dozens of members of the U.S. House of Representatives are choosing to leave the dysfunctional chamber rather than seek another term. The politics are toxic. The rhetoric is ugly. And it seems that members aren’t interested in doing much besides fighting the culture wars — and one another,” the board wrote. “But we don’t believe for a minute that’s the reason former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy decided to step down at the end of the month after 17 years in Congress. After all, he helped create the hostile conditions in Congress by toadying to the hard-right Republicans in his conference.”

“In the end, however, McCarthy couldn’t manage the unruly conference and was deposed in October after a mere nine months in charge. His crime, according to the GOP hard-liners who orchestrated his downfall? Taking the kind of sensible action that Americans expect of their leaders. He’s [not] a tragic hero, though. Just a victim of the MAGA flames he fanned,” the board said. “He could have put aside his hurt feelings and indignation to serve the full term he was elected to.”

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown wrote about “the final humiliation of Kevin McCarthy.”

“I can’t say that I’m surprised that this is the path McCarthy is taking. His 16 years in office, almost all in conference leadership, have been almost solely defined by his opportunism. It was clear after last fall’s midterms that his future in the House was reliant upon a razor-thin majority; his eventual downfall was all but predestined. But rather than continue to serve the people of Bakersfield, California, or work to counter the far-right members who toppled him, he has opted to chase power elsewhere. It is the choice of a coward,” Brown said.

“McCarthy’s op-ed declaring that he will leave office to ‘serve America in new ways’ is a perfect distillation of his congressional ethos: paragraphs of pablum with no substance. The closest thing to a thesis one can draw from the piece is that Congress is pointless, so his failures don’t really matter,” Brown added. “If this is the lie that McCarthy has to tell himself, that’s fine; it is an unconvincing rewriting of history and will do little to change the legacy he has crafted. He has been a poor steward of the people’s trust; rather than sever ties with former President Donald Trump in 2021, he rehabilitated the biggest threat facing American democracy. He has done nothing to leave Capitol Hill a better place than when he first arrived.”

In The New York Times, Michelle Cottle asked, “Was it worth it, Kevin McCarthy?”

“In his fevered pursuit of the gavel, Mr. McCarthy time and again prostrated himself before the altar of Donald Trump, sacrificing basically all the things that matter: his dignity, his integrity, his values (such as they were), his soul — you name it,” Cottle wrote. “It’s hard to dispute that this is the ending that Mr. McCarthy deserved. By contrast, the American people don’t deserve the damage that he has done to the House — and, really, the nation — that will linger long after he is gone. 

“By empowering the most extreme elements of the Republican conference, he made an already fractured, fractious chamber even more dysfunctional. Worse, by shoring up Mr. Trump after Jan. 6, he helped put America back on a crash course with a dangerous, antidemocratic demagogue looking for political revenge. These are Mr. McCarthy’s legacies. If he is remembered at all, it will be as a cautionary tale about what happens when one leaves it all on the field in the service of little more than blind ambition.”

What the right is saying.

  • The right says McCarthy's resignation marks the end of small-government Republicans who cede cultural issues to the left.
  • Some suggest McCarthy is retaliating against the House GOP for ousting him by refusing to serve out his term.
  • Others argue he was an effective politician and will be missed by Republicans. 

In National Review, Henry Olsen explored “how the ‘Young Guns’ failed.”

“Once touted as the party’s future, McCarthy and his onetime comrades in arms — former speaker Paul Ryan and former House Majority leader Eric Cantor — will be all out of office and on the outs with their party’s voters,” Olsen said. “Their failure to create the GOP of their dreams would be cautionary enough. Combined with the continuing failure of the Republicans who unseated them to construct a durable, governing alternative, it’s a tale of how a party that loses touch with its voters can wander aimlessly for years.”

“Under their leadership, government was supposed to get smaller in relative size, and our budget deficits were supposed to be shrinking. Instead, the federal government is ballooning, and our deficits have exploded,” Olsen wrote. “McCarthy held on the longest because he is a sharp political animal. But he failed in the end because he, too, is simply not the type of person GOP voters want. He’s too interested in the inside game and uninterested in the cultural issues that unite the party. He could talk the talk about being pro-life or fighting for women’s sports, but it was easy to see that these weren’t his passions.”

In Hot Air, Jazz Shaw asked, “What was behind McCarthy's resignation?”

“If he had been suffering from health afflictions or experienced some tremendous loss in his personal life, I wouldn’t blame him. For that matter, if he had received some fantastic offer from the private sector that needed to be acted on immediately, I would similarly cut him some slack,” Shaw said. “While it pains me to say it, this looks more than anything else like a simple case of sour grapes. McCarthy is angry over the way that he was ousted from the Speakership that he had coveted for so long, primarily engineered by some of the most conservative elements of his own party.”

“In his parting statement, McCarthy said that he wants to ‘serve America in new ways.’ But if he really wanted to serve America from a conservative perspective, further weakening the House GOP’s razor-thin majority at this moment clearly isn’t helping. He could have served far better by finishing his term and allowing the voters of his district to pick a replacement. Now Gavin Newsom will have the option of scheduling an election or leaving the seat vacant for all of next year, weakening the GOP voting block further.”

In The Orange County Register, John Seiler said “California is going to miss Kevin McCarthy.”

“Republicans especially will miss McCarthy for his fundraising prowess. Like it or not, money remains the mother’s milk of politics, and McCarthy was highly adept at raising it at the state and national levels. The loss of his skills could cost the party crucial House seats from California, possibly losing their majority,” Seiler wrote. “That’s especially crucial in a state where Republicans commonly are outspent by Democrats tapping into the vast, taxpayer-provided funds of the public-employee unions.

“McCarthy also was effective in this state because, before heading to Congress in 2007, he was in the Assembly from 2002-2006, and minority leader for most of the last two years of that period. He knew politics from the state and local levels up to the top of the country,” Seiler said. “I get why the more conservative Republicans in Congress, especially Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, worked to oust him. But it was a mistake. In politics, you’re lucky to get one thing accomplished; expecting more is unrealistic. With such a slim majority, that one thing should have been padding the majority in 2024.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • This is a shock — even if it won’t matter to most Americans.
  • More than anything, I’m surprised that this episode ends with McCarthy out of office and Gaetz relatively unscathed.
  • Republicans should be concerned about retaining the House in 2024, and we don’t yet know what part McCarthy will play in next year’s election.

It is a pretty shocking moment in congressional history. But I also have to remind myself that this won’t get too much attention outside the political junkies.

Most Americans have already moved their focus onto the war in Israel, or what is going to happen to Ukraine funding, or back to the abortion fight and the economy. But I am struggling to think of such a swift rise and fall for an American politician in recent memory. Remember, two months ago, McCarthy was second in line for the presidency — now he is retiring early from Congress, toothless and with very little political capital. In fact, McCarthy is now going to leave Congress before Nancy Pelosi.

That McCarthy does not see an effective path forward for himself now that he isn't speaker is an interesting look into congressional power and the current state of infighting in Congress. Rising from the bottom to the top is the normal order of things. Going from the top dog to anything else is so unacceptable to people like McCarthy that continuing to serve out his term isn't even an option. He isn't just not running for re-election; he is resigning almost a full year early.

For Republicans, it is a sign of the times: Not just of populism rising, but of increased strength in the party among the right-wing hardliners. I very wrongly predicted Matt Gaetz would actually face some kind of repercussion for leading the revolt against McCarthy. I floated a possible expulsion or censure from Congress, or at least an organized political hit job to hurt him. So far, there has been... crickets. Nothing. Nada. He has carried on, mocking McCarthy from his seat, and McCarthy isn't even sticking around to fight. Perhaps he had fewer friends than we all thought?

For a lot of Republicans, this is a worrisome development. Say what you will about McCarthy — he is a caricature of a politician who promises everything to everyone and seems hellbent only on attaining more power — but he was a prolific fundraiser. And Republicans could really use the money. Remember that they just lost George Santos, narrowing their majority, and could very possibly lose that seat. While McCarthy’s seat is relatively safe, there are a half dozen Republicans in California who could have really used his help. McCarthy has been directly responsible for between 10% and 25% of all the money raised this year by almost all of the House’s most vulnerable Republicans, according to The New York Times

The most interesting thing now is what he plans to do with his newfound free time. Will he work to help the Republicans in the same institution that just spurned him? Or will he go on a vengeance tour against members of the House Freedom Caucus? And how might he weigh in on the 2024 presidential race?

It's hard to believe his time in Congress is really up, and I also struggle to imagine a world in which we aren't hearing a lot about him in the coming months.

Holiday shopping?

If you are looking for a stocking stuffer, Hanukkah present, or a subtle way to tell a family member to open their mind, consider giving the gift of Tangle. You can give a Tangle subscription by going here or you can buy Tangle merchandise like shirts, baby onesies, phone cases, hats, or stickers by going here. Use code LEGACY10 to get 10% off for the rest of December.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm a high school junior who hopes to go into AI. Recently, I wrote and published my first ever article about my opinion on AI doomerism, and why I believe it's a harmful narrative. Being rather new to Tangle, I'm not familiar with your take on AI or the Doomerism aspect of the AI revolution in general, and I'm curious about your thoughts. 

— Julie from San Diego, California

Tangle: I’ve got to say, I’m impressed by how thorough your article is! You cover a lot of ground in your take, including in areas that I see frequently left out of conversations pundits have about AI. And in two big areas, I agree with you (you might be interested in my piece on "scary tech" and its impact on politics).

The first of those is in the definition of “general intelligence,” or “human intelligence.” Theose are terms we don’t actually have good definitions for, and thousands of people in the fields of neuroscience, psychiatry, and psychometrics have been trying to both define and measure intelligence for decades. In trying to do so, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is at play: The more closely we try to measure something, the less certain we can be of what we’re measuring. Here, the more specifically we test for “intelligence,” the less we measure “general intelligence”; instead, we end up defining intelligence as the ability to perform well in our test.

And I think we see this at play with AI. Machines have amazing processing capabilities, far past what humans can achieve, in computation and memory storage. But humans have had an enormous advantage in complex language, until very recently. Defining AI by its ability to perform as well as a human in language processing is pretty narrow — does a computer’s ability to answer a question show it has human intelligence? Or, does it show that it can perform machine processing text association about as well as a human can think and present their answer through language?

Second is the assumption of extrapolation. AI doomers assume that machine intelligence will keep improving itself, more and more quickly, until we reach some unknowable singularity. Not only that, but technologists in general assume we’ll be able to understand and define intelligence. This includes you, Julie! Writing that defining intelligence is still “in its infancy” assumes that we’re going to reach a mature definition. But maybe we never get there. Maybe intelligence will prove just as hard to define as “consciousness” or “nature.”

But I don’t even know if that’s the most important reason to be skeptical of doomerist extrapolation. For me, it’s the assumption of constant and exponential improvement. Even if an AI can have a direct sense of the physical world, evolving past the point of being a very convincing text association engine, does that mean it gets to the point where it can accelerate its understanding and powers to a G-d level? I think that requires several assumptions, layered on top of several others.

My thinking on AI currently comes to the same conclusion as yours — it’s a powerful tool that’s getting more powerful, and we should be careful with it. But I don’t think that more refinement of AI is an existential threat, and I’m not sure that it ever really will be.  

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

We interviewed Marianne Williamson.

A few weeks ago, we published an interview with Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) shortly after he entered the Democratic primary race. Several readers wrote in to say it was odd we immediately interviewed Phillips given that another person, Marianne Williamson, was already in the race and had a strong and significant following. This was a good point, so we reached out to her for an interview, and she agreed to come on. I was very pleased Williamson gave us a full hour of her time, and you can watch the interview below. 


  • 220-213. Republicans’ majority in the House after McCarthy leaves office at the end of December. 
  • 140. The number of days within which a special election must be held to fill a vacant congressional seat in California.
  • 67%. The percentage of the vote won by McCarthy in California's 20th Congressional District election in 2022. 
  • 71%. The percentage of the vote won by McCarthy when he was first elected to the House in 2006. 
  • $78 million. McCarthy’s fundraising total for 2023. 
  • 25%. The percentage of the funds raised by the House GOP’s campaign committee in 2023 that McCarthy contributed. 
  • 26%. The percentage of Americans who said they had a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of McCarthy in a September 2023 poll from Statista. 
  • 48%. The percentage of Americans who said they had a “very” or “somewhat” unfavorable view of McCarthy in the same poll. 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we didn't have a newsletter, but we'd just published a piece about how Biden made the right bad deal for Brittney Griner.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was the ad in the free version for Brad's Deals, a newsletter for discount alerts.
  • Nikki no more: 463 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking who won the final Republican Debate with 42% saying Chris Christie. 37% said Nikki Haley, 15% said Ron DeSantis, and 5% said Vivek Ramaswamy. This is the first Republican debate that Tangle readers did not think Haley won. "Christie had his best performance yet, and showed himself to be the only one willing to honestly face the hard questions -- even if because he had nothing to lose, of which he's not the only one," one respondent said. 
  • Nothing to do with politics: Shohei Ohtani's new contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers is the largest in the history of team sports.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of Kevin McCarthy's legacy in Congress? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

There’s great news in child care: We are living through a baby knowledge boom. Global child mortality has historically been around 50%, but early 20th century medical progress brought that number down to 27% by 1950. As of 2020, the number was brought down even further to 4.3%, which includes a 1.7% mortality rate per and a 3.5% under-5 mortality rate per live birth. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has its sights on lowering those numbers even further. To do so, they want to share medical findings with countries where mortality is high, creating a “baby knowledge boom.” Better access to antenatal steroids, probiotics for premature babies, and probiotics for malnourished mothers could further reduce under-5 mortality to 2.4% globally, the foundation believes. The Progress Network has the story.

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