It would be a mistake to think House Speaker Kevin McCarthy lacks skills as a politician. The process that led to his promotion may have been a chaotic circus on a historic scale, and he clearly lacks the trust and respect of some of his own members, but the California Republican wouldn’t have reached this career pinnacle without some relevant talents.
Indeed, McCarthy has earned a reputation as an affable colleague with a preternatural ability to forge personal connections. Republican Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana marveled a couple of years ago, “Kevin’s capacity to build and maintain relationships is not normal.”
The new speaker has displayed these skills throughout his career, from hosting poker nights with colleagues during his time in California’s legislature to impressing Donald Trump with a big jar of candy, paying careful attention to include only the Starbursts flavors he knew the then-president liked most.
McCarthy is a back-slapper. A charming pol with a quick smile. A schmoozer who will “always remember the name of your uncle’s cousin.” A leader who eagerly volunteers to visit his members’ districts. A congressman known for “his relentless cultivation of political alliances.”
McCarthy is not, however, an accomplished legislator or capable leader. Consider a top 10 most important things to know about the new House speaker:
1. McCarty’s legislative record is remarkably thin. Over the past 15 years, he’s been the lead sponsor of 10 bills that became law, and four of them involved renaming federal buildings.
During that time, the Californian has never cultivated any meaningful areas of expertise, or even pretended to care deeply about the details of policymaking. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a few months ago, “I have served under four presidents as speaker or leader. I served with many leaders on the Republican side. Unfortunately, that gentleman is the least substantive person. There is nothing of substance there.”
2. McCarthy occasionally blurts out things Republicans don't want to hear. The Republican likely would’ve become speaker in 2015, but he accidentally told the truth about the political purpose of the GOP’s Benghazi committee, sparking an intense backlash from his ostensible allies.
About a year later, in comments he didn’t know would reach the public, McCarthy joked to House Republicans that Donald Trump was on Vladimir Putin’s payroll, adding, “Swear to God.”
As speaker, he’ll be talking a lot more, and no one should be surprised if he blurts out more comments like these.
3. McCarthy’s intellect has repeatedly been called into question. Politico published a report last summer with a memorable lede: “Is Kevin McCarthy a great big dummy? That’s not a rhetorical question. Read between the lines of some of the coverage during McCarthy’s 15 years in Congress and you start to suspect that many folks who pay close attention to our likely next House Speaker don’t think he’s the sharpest tool in the shed.”
The next paragraph read, “The hints slip in, often as asides: McCarthy is ‘a golden retriever of a man,’ ‘not known for being a policy wonk,’ ‘not known for his immersion in policy details,’ ‘not known to have a mind for policy,’ ‘a coastal extrovert of ambiguous ideological portfolio who … would far rather talk about personalities than the tax code‘ and ‘not necessarily a policy wonk or political mastermind like his predecessors in House leadership.’ His elevation would mean that ‘even though the fractured House Republican caucus may benefit from McCarthy’s networking abilities, others may have to step up to help filter out the details of policy quagmires to come.’ No wonder ‘many believe he lacks the political and tactical gravitas to be a force‘ and ‘there are those who privately question his policy chops and intellectual abilities.’ It’s not hard to conclude that the authors of these lines may be trying to tell us something.”
Soon after, Vox asked Rep. Ruben Gallego if he’d thought about working in a McCarthy-led chamber. The Arizona Democrat replied, “No, in some regard because it’s hard for me to imagine someone that dumb being speaker of the House.” A year earlier, Pelosi was heard describing McCarthy as "a moron."
4. McCarthy’s rhetorical clumsiness has long been a problem. I’m reminded of a column from The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank: “In 2014, I chronicled McCarthy’s musings on blind justice (‘You see the Supreme Court, you see the statue sitting there, blinded in the process with the weights in between’), on Obamacare enrollment (‘He only totes the 8 million ... How can we fall going forward?’) and on charter schools (‘This is a great strength of a change making an equalizer inside for economy throughout’). In a 2015 foreign policy address, he announced that he had visited ‘Hungria’ and lamented that Russia is ‘keeping the place of the band on America.’”
This is a partial excerpt from a longer list.
5. McCarthy’s honesty has repeatedly been called into question. From lies about Donald Trump to lies about his party’s policy agenda, the new speaker hasn’t exactly earned a reputation as a paragon of honesty.
Last spring Politico spoke to a senior GOP aide who said McCarthy has a “trust” issue, adding, “He’s a bald-faced liar who literally just has no problem completely lying.”
6. McCarthy has few core principles. In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack, McCarthy was surreptitiously recorded talking about Trump and the then-president’s responsibility for the insurrectionist violence. In the behind-the-scenes tapes, the Republican lead actually came across pretty well: McCarthy was heard drawing ethical boundaries and telling his ostensible GOP allies that he was prepared to do something somewhat courageous.
McCarthy retreated soon after, abandoning his plan to be brave, and spending the months that followed covering for Trump, despite obviously knowing better.
The New York Times’ Michelle Cottle explained two years ago, “If Mitch McConnell, the ruthless, calculating Senate Republican leader, is a shark, Mr. McCarthy is a jellyfish, carried spinelessly along by the political currents.”
The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer added last month that the new speaker’s main strength “has always been his malleability. There are no red lines, core policy beliefs, or inviolable principles, just a willingness to adapt to the moods of his conference.”
7. McCarthy seeks power for the sake of having power. The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus explained last week, “McCarthy seems to crave power for power’s sake, not for any higher purposes. ... McCarthy’s peculiar ambition appears to be entirely tautological: He should have the speakership because he deserves it, not because of what he wants to do with it.”
It’s an underappreciated aspect to the new speaker’s legendary capacity for ambition: McCarthy isn’t a politician who strives for power because he has bold ideas that he’s desperate to approve and implement in service of a broader constituency; he strives for power because he seems to enjoy having a nice office with an impressive view.
8. McCarthy’s Jan. 6 record is tough to defend. Three days after the 2020 presidential election, McCarthy told Fox News viewers that Trump had won the election he’d lost, and Republicans “cannot allow” Democrats to proceed as if they’d won the elections, just because Democrats had won the elections. A month later, McCarthy signed his name to a ridiculous legal brief, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn election results for no reason.
The month after that, on Jan. 6, after an insurrectionist mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, two-thirds of the House Republican conference voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory — and McCarthy sided with his right-wing colleagues against democracy.
For more along these lines, my colleague Lisa Rubin published a terrific report on Friday night, noting that the Jan. 6 committee’s final report exposes McCarthy “as a chameleon with ambition.”
9. McCarthy is not great at counting votes. Headed into the Friday night’s developments on the House floor, McCarthy expressed confidence that he’d finally be elected speaker on the 14th ballot. Asked why he was certain, the Republican responded, “Because I counted.”
He soon after lost on the 14th ballot. It was a reminder that while Pelosi was known for her expertise in vote-counting, it’s a skill her GOP successor sometimes lacks.
10. McCarthy might not like this job. Being speaker is a difficult job under the best of circumstances, and McCarthy is not facing the best of circumstances. He has a tiny majority that includes a radicalized faction that will now have the power to try to depose him. He also has several bills that he will have to try to pass, despite a conference that will push in the opposite direction.
There is, in other words, every reason to believe that the new speaker will be miserable, the cachet of his title notwithstanding.
Five months before his death, the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s former chief White House speech writer, argued in a column, “Whatever his political future, McCarthy will be remembered as his generation’s most pathetic, unprincipled and contemptible political figure.” This was the same Gerson who’d previously wrote, “The political future is unpredictable and ever-changing. But here is something you can depend on: The elevation of McCarthy to House speaker would be a disastrous day for the Republic.”
Ready or not, that day has arrived.