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Why Kevin McCarthy Will Be Worse Than Boehner

The presumptive next speaker is promising to be more partisan than ever—and we should take him at his word.

10.02.15 5:00 AM ET

John Boehner has been far and away the worst speaker of the House of Representatives in many decades, presiding over the two least productive Congresses in modern American history, overseeing those endless and ridiculous Obamacare repeal votes, and most of all not having the stones to bring the immigration bill to the floor. It would have passed any day he chose to let that happen, which at least would have given the newspapers one positive item to include in the lead paragraph of his obituary when the time comes.

But from the looks of things, Boehner isn’t going to be holding the worst speaker title for very long.

There was a time in this country when the speaker of the House thought of himself more as a servant of the entire country. He’s called speaker of the House, after all, not speaker of a certain party in the House. He was third in line for the presidency, which meant he needed to hold the idea in the back of his mind that someday, he might be called upon to run the country under circumstances that would inevitably be tragic, thus requiring that he not be seen as too partisan a figure.

It was norms and traditions like these that led Democratic Speaker John McCormack, who ran the House in the 1960s, to say after Richard Nixon’s election that “direct confrontation between Congress and the president is going to be harmful to the country and should be avoided if possible.”

Boehner hardly had a single McCormack cell in his body. But compared to Kevin McCarthy, he’s a virtual David Broder. You know of course by now what McCarthy said about the true nature of the Benghazi committee. But what you may not know, if you’re just relying on news accounts that snipped the quote, is the full context in which he said it. Usually, the full context of comments reproduced in news snippets has a way of making them not as bad as they first seemed. But here, the context makes McCarthy’s words far worse. See for yourself:

HANNITY: But in February didn’t you guys end up funding it, you passed the “crum-nibus,” you gave up your leverage.

MCCARTHY: No, no. Sean, no, because the courts had put a stay on that. So there was no funding going towards that. The question I think you really want to ask me is, how am I going to be different?

HANNITY: I love how you asked my questions. But go ahead, that is one of my questions. Go right ahead.

MCCARTHY: I knew you’d want to ask it. What you’re going to see is a conservative speaker that takes a conservative Congress that puts a strategy to fight and win.

And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s un-trustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened—

In other words, he and Hannity were having an exchange about substance—about how Republicans had failed, from Hannity’s point of view, to control spending, defund Obamacare, defund the president’s executive orders on immigration. Then McCarthy volunteers that he will be different. And how will he be different? Not by controlling spending or defunding Obamacare or Obama’s immigration initiatives. By being more political and more partisan!

And anyway, why is the Benghazi committee a relevant example of how McCarthy is going to be different from Boehner? Has he been some secret power behind the whole thing from the start, like Akim Tamiroff in The Great McGinty, calling the shots, telling Trey Gowdy whom to depose and badger with nine hours’ worth of questions that have nothing to do with the deaths of Chris Stevens and other three Americans? It would be very interesting, I think, for America’s taxpayers, on the hook here for $4.6 million so far, to know whether the next speaker has been the Rasputin behind Gowdy’s little throne.

That McCarthy would say this reveals to us that he doesn’t remotely think that the American people are a constituency with which he need concern himself. The constituencies that concern him are Hannity, Fox viewers, and conservatives. Not even all Republicans, some of whom are reasonable human beings who do not wish for perpetual political war. Only all highly partisan conservatives. This is the man who’ll be presiding over the people’s chamber. People think Donald Trump is a farce, and he is, but he’s no worse a farce than this.

Meanwhile, what can Hillary Clinton and the Democrats do with this egregious statement? Probably not as much as they’d like, alas. Wednesday, in the wake of McCarthy’s comments (uttered Tuesday night), there was some discussion among Benghazi committee Democrats about whether they shouldn’t just end the whole charade, or at least their part in it, by boycotting any remaining proceedings.

That sounds great on the surface, but remember that Clinton is testifying on Oct. 22. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, is apparently of the view that leaving Clinton to fend for herself in a committee room full of Republicans is a really bad idea, so he’s going to make sure the Democrats are there that day to pull the reins on Republicans when they start galloping off into fantasy land. A boycott would be emotionally satisfying, but Cummings is right. Clinton has to be broadly seen as winning that showdown to start putting this mess behind her, and she probably can’t do that without Democrats in the room.

So my guess is that McCarthy’s statement may not do the damage to him or his party that it so richly deserves to. But if you’ve read this deeply into this column, I hope that you, at least, care. This is not just about Clinton and the next election. This is about customs and norms that once kept this government functioning (admittedly sometimes better than other times, but functioning).

But those customs and norms have been under assault for two decades. Newt Gingrich wounded them. Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert, that great American now desperately negotiating a plea bargain so that Americans never learn the details about his career as a “wrestling coach,” killed them. John Boehner pissed on their corpse. And Kevin McCarthy looks like the guy who’s going to set the corpse on fire.