No one has ever accused Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy of being an intellectual. He did go to college and got a BS in marketing from Cal State Bakersfield and then a MBA from the same school. Basically, he learned tactics and strategies of manipulation. That served him well as he rose through the ranks of the GOP: a staffer for the local congressman, chairman of the California Young Republicans, chairman of the Young Republican National Federation, and finally a trustee of the Kern Community College District (and elected position). Two years later he was elected to the state Assembly and then to the U.S. House when his old boss retired. He's been reelected 7 times, with either no opposition of no serious opposition is a highly gerrymandered red district, which just went from an unassailable R+22 to a ridiculous R+31.
He served on the House Financial Services Committee and immediately sold his soul to the banksters, who he protects from regulation and who in turn finance his career aspirations. The sleaziest members of Congress-- from both parties-- think that's what the function of the House Financial Services Committee is. It attracts the most corrupt members from each party-- currently scumbags like ranking member Patrick McHenry (the one who invited Madison Cawthorn to the GOP orgy), Pete Sessions, Lee Zeldin, Tom Emmer, Bill Posey, Roger Williams, Josh Gottheimer, Juan Vargas, Brad Sherman, Gregory Meeks, Joyce Beatty and Ritchie Torres.
This morning, Politico Magazine ran an explosive essay by Michael Schaffer on McCarthy's... lack of intellectual prowess, not the kind of thing you say every day from the Beltway media. "Is Kevin McCarthy," asked Schaffer, "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." Did I say the Beltway media does write this kind of thing every day? I should have said they don't write this kind of thing every year... or decade, not about someone in such a position of power. Is Paul Ryan behind this? Jim Jordan?
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.
Granted anonymity, some journalists do just that. “He’s a lightweight,” says one veteran political journalist who has covered McCarthy.
“I would never consider him to be smart,” says a TV figure who has interviewed him several times.
“In a strange way that is hard to explain, he’s gotten more stupid the longer he’s here,” opines a longtime Capitol Hill reporter who has watched McCarthy since his early days of palling around with the wonkier likes of Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.
While not every Congressional reporter I spoke to shares this view-- several offered faint praise by noting that there are plenty of dumber members; others make the point that anyone who masters a Congressional caucus must have something good going on-- it’s safe to say it’s not an obscure opinion.
“We have a grudging respect for his political savvy, navigating himself to the position he’s gotten,” says one beatster. “He has incredible emotional IQ.”
But this isn’t actually a column about Kevin McCarthy’s intellect. I’ve never met the man, much less quizzed him about Aristotle or particle physics (or tax policy).
Rather, it’s a column about how Washington talks: If someone is in line for an important job, and people in the business of telling it like it is think that person is a dimwit, why doesn’t this conclusion get shared with the broader public?
It turns out that stupid may be one of Washington’s last taboos. Left to their own devices, insiders will bandy about all kinds of notions about prominent pols: Who’s a liar, who’s losing their marbles, who’s a dupe. But while other polite norms have crumbled-- conventions against alleging dishonesty shrank during the Trump years; recent coverage of Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggests there’s a new candor about discussing senility-- out-and-out accusations of dopiness are rare.
Even in opinion columns, the language tends to elide the subject. About the roughest recent assessment of McCarthy’s intellect among the writers who are actually permitted to share their point of view came from conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who called him an “ambitious plodder ... someone difficult for his colleagues to attack because he never had anything remotely interesting to say.” (In the same column, Gerson had no problem using short, specific, non-euphemistic language about other aspects of McCarthy, calling him a “liar” and a “hypocrite.”)
In a way, this reticence may be a good thing. A lot of journalists remain leery of assertions about intent. To say someone is lying requires knowing their state of mind; to say someone is repeating an untrue statement does not. Given the amount of acting involved in politics, is it worth going out on a limb to call someone stupid? It could all be just a big act, after all. Safer to just lay out the dumb things someone has done.
More to the point, intelligence is also something that takes a lot of forms. Someone may not be able to place Kyiv on a map, but in the game of leadership, other sorts of smarts-- the ability to remember which member’s spouse has cancer or to know just how to make some insecure back-bencher think leadership really cares about him-- are a big deal, too. People who ascend complicated institutions, like Congress, are rarely total zeroes.
...The problem for McCarthy, though, is that many low opinions about his smarts aren’t based on Bush-style mangled sentences or Reaganesque inattention to detail. Instead, they’re based on the one thing Washington beat reporters judge most harshly: tactical boneheadedness.
In 2015, the last time McCarthy was on the cusp of the speakership, he was undone by an epic gaffe-- suggesting in public that the Benghazi probe was about hurting Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, the sort of saying-the-quiet-part-loud incident that political pros disdain. (Not that they’ll quite say so: “The flap has raised questions not only about McCarthy’s political ability and instincts, but also his communication skills,” declared Bloomberg News in a typically polite assessment at the time.) The job ultimately went to Paul Ryan.
This spring, McCarthy found himself at the center of another baffling foot-in-mouth story: After New York Times political reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns reported in a new book that McCarthy had told fellow Republicans after January 6 that he intended to call on Trump to resign, McCarthy denounced the report as “totally false.” A day later, an audio recording emerged of McCarthy saying just what the pair had reported.
“Was denying the thing that was on tape dumb?” asks a reporter who has covered McCarthy. “Yeah. And we all said at the time, ‘Man, what an idiot.’”
But did anyone write that? Not really.
“He has long faced questions about his capacity to manage the unruly, ideologically fractious flock of lawmakers who make up the House Republican conference,” the Times reported the next day. The taboo held firm.
If you do a superficial google search for the "dumbest members of Congress," you get a lot of Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Marjorie Traitor Greene (Q-GA), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Lauren Boebert (Q-CO)... and Kevin McCarthy.
I spoke to a long-time member off the record this morning who told me there's never been-- in her time at least-- anyone as just plain stupid as Madison Cawthorn in the House. She said she feels sorry for him because he was home schooled by an idiot and because "Madison thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, and no one else thinks he is. No one." And she wasn't even aware of the high drama that went on between McCarthy, Scalise and Cawthorn after they made up a story for him about there having never been any GOP orgies and how the coke snorter wasn't a congressman but just a staffer. McCarthy announces it to the media and Cawthorn contradicted him entirely when he spoke with a loose-lipped Roget Stone. McCarthy then gave North Carolina Republicans the green light to oust Cawthorn from Congress... which they did.