When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy sent a letter to his colleagues on Wednesday announcing his bid to become speaker of the House in January, he likely intended it to arrive in the aftermath of a massive win for Republicans in the midterms, content in the knowledge that a sizable GOP majority that he’d helped usher in was prepared to back him in the 118th Congress next year. Instead, he is looking at presiding over one of the slimmest majorities in the history of the House, if he wins a majority at all.
Over the past two years, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demonstrated the struggles that can come with legislating with a razor-thin majority. Her ultimate successes would have been nearly impossible if she’d been working with the Republican caucus, whose members are far less willing to compromise for the sake of unity or progress and far more willing to cannibalize their own leadership. And McCarthy is no Pelosi — the chaos that has defined the House Republican will certainly be more than he is equipped to handle as speaker.
The image of McCarthy that emerges is less a leader than the guy who doesn’t want anyone to be mad at him.
McCarthy first rose to prominence alongside Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan as one of the so-called Young Guns who were set to transform the House GOP. In the book the three of them published in 2010 in which they declared themselves the “new generation of conservative leaders,” each assigned themselves clear roles: "Cantor was the leader, Ryan the policy wonk and McCarthy the strategist." A little more than a decade later, McCarthy is the last one standing, with Cantor falling to a tea party challenger in 2014 and Ryan resigning in 2018 after a tumultuous three years as speaker.
I’ve long wondered how McCarthy has been the only Young Gun to survive and have spent much of the past year trying to piece together an answer. The image of McCarthy that emerges is less a leader and more of the guy who doesn’t want anyone to be mad at him, a chronic middle manager rather than a visionary with goals beyond title and rank.
The New Republic recently wrote that “McCarthy’s allies and friends say that his political skill lies in his ability to identify who has power and cozy up to them.” A New York magazine profile described him as a “born schmoozer who will always remember the name of your uncle’s cousin.” He clearly hoped that this skill would be the thing to get him the speaker’s gavel come January. That’s meant that as the midterms approached, McCarthy “groomed candidates, bought dinners, remembered names, sent flowers, logged time on Fox News, gained the favor of farmers and billionaires — all with, as one friend noted, a Ferris Bueller vibe.”
For a sense of how that would translate to a McCarthy speakership, consider this quote he gave New York magazine: “I don’t get to hire who works with me, and I don’t get to fire who works with me and I just have to inspire. So my job is to find what inspires, find the people, put them in the right seats, and let them excel.” In some people, this could be charitably read as being diplomatic. In McCarthy, it comes across as being a people-pleaser.
This is actually the second time that McCarthy has made a run for the top job. As House majority leader, McCarthy was poised to ascend to speaker when John Boehner resigned in 2015. But the far-right Freedom Caucus that forced Boehner from power also refused to back McCarthy. He also had made the mistake of (accurately) suggesting that the GOP’s investigation into the Benghazi attack was more about hurting Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers than providing proper oversight.
McCarthy stepped back from the speaker race, allowing Ryan to become the compromise candidate. That might have been the end of the story if it hadn’t been for Donald Trump’s rise to the White House. McCarthy would become “my Kevin” in Trump’s words, a bridge between the GOP’s MAGA wing and the establishment. It’s a role that seemed ill-fitting at times, especially to those who had known him for years. One GOP consultant told the Los Angeles Times that McCarthy is “not the same person” that he once was: “The old Kevin McCarthy would have protected the party from the mob. He has been overrun.”
That might be true, but McCarthy has been working overtime to be accepted as one of the mob’s own. He’s spent the past six years trying to get on the good side of his former Freedom Caucus foes. His record-breaking 8 1/2-hour speech against the Build Back Better Act last year was rambling, utterly hollow and, as I wrote at the time, “both a masterful summation of the state of his caucus and a fitting distillation of his leadership style.”
It seems now like those efforts might have been for naught. McCarthy only gave a few brief remarks to the election night party at his headquarters that were clearly meant to be a victory lap for all of his efforts to retake the House. “Knives are out for Kevin McCarthy,” one GOP source texted a Washington Post reporter, suggesting that House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., might try his hand at usurping his boss.
McCarthy has been working overtime to be accepted as one of the mob’s own
Becoming speaker requires not just a majority of support in the GOP caucus but a majority vote on the floor of the House. With as slim a majority as McCarthy is facing, it will only take a handful of defectors to prevent him from hitting the 218 votes he’d need. And some members of the Freedom Caucus whom McCarthy has tried so hard to cultivate are already saying that they won’t support his bid — at least not for a price.
Already the caucus is demanding concessions from McCarthy that would limit his ability to stray too far from the MAGA path. Those demands include reinstating a rule that makes it easy to oust a speaker, requiring legislation be available for 72 hours before a vote, and allowing votes on amendments on all bills on the floor. In effect, these would both limit his ability to cut deals with Democrats and leave him keenly aware of the metaphorical sword dangling over his head.
Even without those exact concessions, the Freedom Caucus is making it very clear how tenuous a McCarthy speakership would be under the current state of play. The extortion efforts that would be required to gain the caucus’s support would only repeat themselves on every piece of essential legislation, including keeping the federal government open and raising the debt ceiling. Any deal that would manage to both survive the Senate and avoid a presidential veto would necessarily require Democratic votes, making McCarthy’s grasp on power all the weaker.
There’s an air of Greek tragedy to this vision that awaits the man from Bakersfield, California, who has yearned to be speaker for most of his life. There is almost no scenario that ends with him holding onto the power that he’s spent the better part of a decade pursuing. Maybe someone else might be able to manage in this kind of no-win situation. But Kevin McCarthy simply was not built for this.