Aside from his own career, does anyone actually have any idea what Kevin McCarthy stands for? A puppet of the Bakersfield oil and gas industry, he was, state Assembly minority leader, where he made no impact at all, before being elected to Congress in 2006. Before that he held a series of inconsequential political jobs, never making a significant mark in any of them. He was elected when he boss, Bill Thomas, retired in a very red district. Until last week, national polls have consistently shown that he's flown under the radar; few Americans had ever heard of him-- until he dumped Liz Cheney from his leadership team at the behest of Trump. Now people are learning who he is-- and mostly don't like him. His approval rating is low (23%) and his disapproval rating is higher (34%). There's an even chance he's going to be speaker after the midterms.
This morning, the progressive Democrat taking on McCarthy is his Kern County district, Bruno Amato, reminded me that "McCarthy opposed the January 6 Commission... a commission to investigate an attack on our democracy. This is no different than opposing a 9/11 commission. McCarthy will do and say anything for power and political ambition. We're talking about a guy who cares about no one but himself. He hasn't held an in-person townhall in his district in 12 years. You can do that when you take your constituents for granted. McCarthy has abandoned his district and betrayed his country. He's voted against every bill that the Dems have put forth, include legislation that is now helping his constituents. He does that while living in a 12 bedroom, 16 bath penthouse in D.C and while hanging out at Mar-a-Lago. He doesn't care about anyone in CA-23. McCarthy will always put himself and party above country and above those he was elected to represent."
Over the weekend, Michelle Cottle, a member of the NY Times editorial board decided to introduce him to The Times' readers: Hail Kevin McCarthy, People Pleaser and Trump Appeaser. She views McCarthy pretty much the way Amato does and began by describing how people who know anything about him at all generally view him: "a weak, hollow, craven, opportunistic, transactional, nakedly ambitious political animal with no core principles." The sounds about right-- and exactly what the House Republicans expect and want from a leader.
Last week, he set heads shaking by announcing his opposition to the bill establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 sacking of the U.S. Capitol. The legislative negotiations had been led on the Republican side, reportedly at McCarthy’s explicit request, by Representative John Katko of New York. But Mr. McCarthy and his leadership team urged members to reject the deal, leaving Katko twisting in the wind. The plan passed on Wednesday. Thirty-five Republicans supported it, in what was viewed as a rebuke of McCarthy.
Some in the G.O.P. conference are asking: What kind of leader dispatches one of his troops to make a deal, then abandons and humiliates him over a bill that’s going to pass anyway? The most obvious answer: a pathetic one.
Such harsh assessments are unfair-- though not because they are inaccurate. McCarthy has long done whatever it takes to get what he wants. And what he really, really wants now is the speaker’s gavel, which hovers just a few precious seats beyond his grasp. If Mitch McConnell, the ruthless, calculating Senate Republican leader, is a shark, McCarthy is a jellyfish, carried spinelessly along by the political currents.
But these days, such inchoate non-leadership is the best that House Republicans can hope for. In fact, that’s what they demand. In a conference increasingly dominated by Trumpian trolls (See: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Mo Brooks…), maintaining serious order is out of the question. Forestalling total anarchy requires a leader with an extraordinary gift for abject appeasement. It’s equal parts feeding the base the unhinged grievance it craves, while still keeping members from less Trumpy districts on board.
McCarthy has shown himself to be that leader, and he deserves recognition for rising-- or rather sinking-- to meet the moment.
...McCarthy joined forces with two other young up-and-comers, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. Known as the Young Guns-- the eventual title of a book they wrote about themselves-- the trio proclaimed themselves the new generation of Republican leaders. Each had a clear role: Cantor was the leader and seen as on the fast track to head the conference. Ryan was the policy wonk. McCarthy was the political strategist. In keeping with the zeitgeist, the Young Guns were feistier, more conservative and more uncompromising than the old establishment. Gone were McCarthy’s days of playing nicely with the other side. They were going to reshape the G.O.P. in their image.
Today, McCarthy is the last Young Gun still in office. Cantor became House majority leader in 2011, before falling to a Tea Party challenger in his 2014 primary-- an early sign of the G.O.P.’s anti-establishment drift. Ryan rose to be speaker in 2015, only to announce in April 2018 that he would not run for re-election, after a bumpy couple of years dealing with Trump.
McCarthy is not one to resign on principle nor let himself get outflanked on the right. To survive the rise of Trumpism, he has had to execute increasingly impressive political contortions. There have been missteps and setbacks. On those rare occasions when he has offended Mr. Trump-- such as acknowledging that Mr. Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack-- he has scrambled to make amends and prove his fealty. All that groveling would have crushed most men’s spirits. Not Mr. McCarthy. He is a champion people pleaser and appeaser.
But even the minority leader’s formidable skills are being tested by this moment. Some days, finding a way through this mess without a full-on meltdown looks impossible. But if anyone can manage the necessary mix of political nihilism and constant self-abasement, it will be Kevin McCarthy.