Kevin McCarthy Is the Pathetic ‘Leader’ Republicans Deserve
The biggest obstacle to Republicans regaining the House in next year’s election is the follower who Peter Principled his way to the top of the caucus.
Republicans, conventional wisdom suggests, are destined to take back the House of Representatives next year. This is partly because Democrats hold a very slim majority, partly because the president’s party historically loses about 30 seats during midterms, and partly because redistricting will handle what historical trends don’t. A recent headline in Roll Call said it best, “Republicans should disband if they don’t win back the House in 2022.” (We should be so lucky.)
Joe Biden’s big spending policies aren’t helping. They risk spurring inflation and depressing job growth numbers (not to mention the out-of-control growth of debt and deficits). Add in the border surge and internecine schisms over such things as the “woke” left’s anti-Israel stance, and Democrats don’t just appear destined to lose—they probably deserve to lose.
Luckily for Democrats, Republicans are the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Why should we believe that a party “led” by the likes of Kevin McCarthy can capitalize on a seemingly golden opportunity served up just for them? I’m not sold.
Let’s take his reversal over the Jan. 6 commission as an example. After endorsing a bipartisan commission and deputizing Rep. John Katko, a popular moderate Republican, to negotiate a deal in which Katko extracted significant concessions, McCarthy cut his legs out from under him; the minority leader announced that he would not only oppose the agreement, but also that he would whip against the bill.
Despite that, 35 Republicans chose to publicly buck their leadership and support the commission anyway. Along the way, McCarthy taught his members that they can’t trust him, that—if they band together—they can defeat or defy him (likely with impunity). “The Hammer,” he is not.
And what was the point? Presumably, McCarthy has personal reasons—most likely the fact that details about his conversation with Trump on Jan. 6 would further implicate Trump. It’s also assumed that the fewer House Republicans who support the commission, the less likely it is that the requisite 10 Senate Republicans needed to end a filibuster would vote for passage in the upper chamber. All of these things are designed to cover up a huge mess that Trump created. Indeed, the GOP’s entire midterm strategy seems to boil down to: “Do whatever Donald Trump wants.”
That’s no way to run a railroad, much less 435 midterm elections. If you think about the things that a smart and powerful party leader should want to do heading into a year like this, you’ll realize that McCarthy can’t or won’t do most of them.
His first goal should be to drive the message and get everyone on the same page (going on offense by addressing problems like inflation, border crossings, and disappointing jobs reports). The desire to unify the caucus before the midterm elections was ostensibly the reason that Republicans purged Liz Cheney from their leadership ranks. Ironically, it’s also one of the primary reasons cited by Republicans to explain their opposition to the Jan. 6 commission. “I want our midterm message to be on the kinds of things that the American people are dealing with,” Sen. John Thune told CNN. “That’s jobs and wages and the economy and national security, safe streets and strong borders—not relitigating the 2020 elections.”
However, it’s impossible to avoid these distractions because of Donald Trump’s nature as a loose cannon. He wakes up and spouts off a message, and then (having decided to enable him) these Republican “leaders” are forced to reverse engineer some rationale to support whatever Trump believes that particular day—very much including his constant insistence on “relitigating the 2020 elections.”
And the 2020 elections aren’t the only things being relitigated. In the aftermath of the insurrection, McCarthy seemed to grasp the seriousness of the attack. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters,” he said on the House floor. “He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.” Trump, McCarthy continued, should “accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-elect Joe Biden is able to successfully begin his term.” But much has changed since then. In March, Trump said that rioters posed “zero threat” and were “hugging and kissing the police…” That has since become the consensus on the right. McCarthy’s refusal to support a bipartisan commission is merely the latest example of a party that doesn’t want to move past Jan. 6, but, instead, wants to revise the historical narrative.
Besides focusing on the future (an effort, I would argue, McCarthy is actually undermining), there are other things a political leader hoping to take back the House might want to do. A leader should protect his incumbents. Likewise, a leader should try to influence which Republican primary candidates in the various congressional districts win nominations. Finally, a leader should husband financial resources for targeted open or challenger seats that, for strategic reasons, Republicans think they can flip.
The truth is that McCarthy can’t do any of these things. That’s because he isn’t just a bad leader; he is not a leader at all. He’s a follower who Peter Principled his way into having subordinates. As he rationalized to The New York Times, “Look, I work with people I don’t get to hire.”
It’s not even entirely clear that McCarthy would be elected Speaker even if Republicans take back the House next year. Trump could easily oust him. Heck, it’s even possible that Trump could become the Speaker! But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If McCarthy “leads” the midterm campaign the way he is leading his caucus (Don’t ask me, I just work here!), all the speculation about who becomes Speaker will be a moot point.
At the end of the day, Kevin McCarthy is a middle-aged middle manager, who can charm, network, and raise money from Republican donors. He has a handsome smile. He wants to be liked and seen as a nice guy. He is just trying to keep his head above water long enough to get that big promotion he’s in line for.
“Kevin is a little like your older brother,” Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry told the Times. “He doesn’t want to be your parent.” I think that’s right. Parents keep us safe and out of trouble. They make us eat broccoli and send us to school. Older brothers sneak us into bars and buy us beer when our parents are out of town. If you’re looking for adult leadership, look elsewhere.
Kevin McCarthy is not your daddy.