The DWT art director spends a lot of time fighting with Marjorie Traitor Greene on Twitter everyday. He even made a little docudrama about her life. But the two would definitely agree on one thing— the way we characterize GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy graphically: an empty suit.
I very much recall that in 1994 I was thinking— when McCarthy was a junior staffer for Rep. Bill Thomas— that the American people would never elect a lowlife sack of shit and precursor to Donald Trump like Newt Gingrich speaker of the House. But no one knew he was a precursor at the time and the American people don’t get to vote for speaker per se. Instead the American people decided they didn’t deserve healthcare and a majority (51.5%) voted for Republican congressional candidates, swapping out a net of 54 Democrats for Republicans… and, in effect, making Gingrich speaker. He is arguably the worst speaker in American history. (Among the Republicans first elected that year were Lindsey Graham, Richard Burr, J.C. Watts, Mark Foley, Sonny Bono, Bob New, Tom Coburn, Joe Scarborough…)
God cursed America with Gingrich and things have spiraled downhill ever since. This morning The New Republic published a piece, The Bland Ambition Of Kevin McCarthy, by Grace Segers and Daniel Straus about the next giant step down. “The Bakersfield Republican,” they warned, “has everything it takes to rise to the top in today’s GOP: zero interest in policy, relentless thirst for power, and slavish loyalty to Trump. If this man becomes speaker of the House— look out, America.”
Much of the story is well known: “McCarthy has represented his district in Central California since 2007. Although he has been in politics for the vast majority of his adult life, joining a congressional office as a staffer in 1987, he has never strayed from his hometown of Bakersfield. Once dismissed as a ‘Bakersfield boy’ by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, McCarthy has become an avatar of the city, and traces his values and his politics from its rolling hills. The people of Bakersfield know how they are perceived by the rest of the state. Located at the southern edge of the arid San Joaquin Valley, Bakersfield has been uncharitably described as the ‘armpit’ of the state, a reference perhaps to both its sweltering climate and its conservative politics. With a metropolitan-area population of nearly one million, Bakersfield would be the biggest city in dozens of states, but in California, it’s an afterthought, overshadowed by Los Angeles and San Francisco and three or four other major cities, and overlooked by the state government in Sacramento. ‘There’s a real sense of insecurity and a sense that you’re not appreciated, or you’re taken for granted,’ said Richard Beene, a longtime local journalist, about the cultural ethos of the area. Bakersfield is the seat of Kern County, one of the key destinations for desperate Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl. The city and its environs bear the legacy of that rugged, hardscrabble culture: Two country music stars of the mid–twentieth century, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, were greatly influenced by their time in Bakersfield. ‘You could probably take Kern County and drop it right in the middle of Texas, and nobody would skip a beat,’ said Mark Martinez, a political science professor at California State University, Bakersfield. The biggest industries in Kern County are oil and agriculture, with many residents tracing their roots from migrant farmworkers— the county is 56 percent Hispanic. But it is a solidly Republican area, particularly given general statewide Democratic support for limiting oil production. ‘A lot of the Hispanic community works in oil, my family included. And so if that industry is gone, they’re going to be out of work. So they’re not necessarily going to vote for Gavin Newsom,’ said Christian Romo, the chair of the county’s Democratic Party. Nonetheless, the Democratic Party is growing in the county, in part because of the influx of progressive urbanites priced out of Los Angeles and the Bay Area, county Democrats say. However, due to redistricting, McCarthy’s district became more Republican this year. Bakersfield is characterized by wide, sun-drenched streets and hazy mountains barely visible in the distance. Its air pollution is among the worst in the country, second only to Los Angeles. Seventeen percent of the city lives in poverty, and it is the second– least-literate city in the country. But Bakersfield, a large city with a small-town mentality, is proud of its values and its industries, with a mindset familiar to any Trump supporter: The elites may look down on us, but we don’t like them either."
In 2002, McCarthy was elected to the California Assembly; less than a year later, he was elected its minority leader. This was likely in part due to his relationship with Thomas, who loomed large in state Republican politics. McCarthy was not a policy wonk like his mentor, but he had the amiability necessary to ascend politically, and his ability to build personal connections—not to mention his fundraising prowess—helped him to maintain that power. “Kevin understood how to connect on a member level, but he also understood how to connect on a personal level. And it was a sight to behold,” said Jim Brulte, who served as Republican leader in the state Senate while McCarthy was in the Assembly. Before McCarthy even got to Congress, Brulte told conservative commentator Fred Barnes that he would someday be speaker.
Thomas announced his retirement in 2006— after being term-limited out of his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee— and McCarthy was all but crowned his successor. (Thomas has since expressed disappointment with his former protégé, most recently labeling him a “hypocrite” in the wake of the January 6 insurrection.) McCarthy has won every subsequent election with relative ease. His popularity in the district varies; opponents note that the doors to his district office are always locked, and that his policy positions demonize immigrants when such a large portion of his district is Latino. Heinle praised McCarthy for his work with the Fire Department in erecting a September 11 memorial, but he argued that the minority leader has become more detached from his district since Trump took power. “That was a different Kevin. That wasn’t ‘my Kevin.’ You know what I mean? He’s changed,” Heinle said, referring to Trump’s declaration of McCarthy as “my Kevin.”
…It would have been unsurprising if a junior congressman from an overlooked city— light on policy but heavy on relationships— had sunk into back-benching anonymity in the House. Instead, McCarthy, through glad-handing and charm, fairly quickly ascended out of congressional obscurity to minor prominence in the House Republican leadership circles.
Politicians can be more celebrity-obsessed than anyone. Even among that cohort, McCarthy sticks out. As he’s risen through the ranks of Congress, he has occasionally assumed the air of a starstruck kid from Bakersfield. In interviews, McCarthy has whipped out photos of himself with major political players, from the pope to the late President George H.W. Bush’s casket. “He’s absolutely the biggest starfucker in Washington. He’s so taken with someone who is a big name, whether it’s Elon Musk or a soap opera star. He loves to hobnob with celebrities. No one thinks the guy has any real ideology or real morals,” a longtime congressional reporter said.
…A common description of McCarthy centers around his vanity— he’s never been shy about touting his connections to, say, Elon Musk. His intellectual chops are mentioned less frequently. Politico published an opinion piece in early June wondering why reporters who believe McCarthy is dumb don’t say so outright, rounding up all the coverage of McCarthy over the years alluding to his lack of substance or any deeply held beliefs.
“He’s a person who got behind Trump early because he had no moral qualms with Trump, which doesn’t bode well for a Republican majority. Say what you will about Paul Ryan, at least what he had was an ethos,” the longtime congressional reporter quipped.
McCarthy has said that his reputation as a lightweight means that he is often underestimated. His occasional unease in public speaking may also stem from his overcoming a childhood speaking disability. While he may not have the policy chops of Thomas, his predecessor, McCarthy has been able to propel himself to power by leveraging personal relations and a particular acumen for fundraising. And even as some on Capitol Hill acknowledge his deficiencies, there is also a sense that McCarthy could not have gotten as far as he has without some canny political instincts. “You don’t end up where he is just being a total idiot,” a Republican staffer on the Hill said.
McCarthy has never been shy about his ambitions. In his book Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders— co-written with Paul Ryan and former Representative Eric Cantor— the future Republican leader wrote that he was “determined not to be satisfied with being in the minority.” McCarthy would have to grin and bear the minority until the GOP, boosted by a wave of anti–Barack Obama Tea Party sentiment, enjoyed a 64-seat swing in 2010. McCarthy had helped secure this victory by traveling the country to campaign for Republican candidates; by the time McCarthy sought his later leadership position, he could point to the legwork he had done on multiple members’ behalf, and the donations he had helped usher their way.
…When Boehner retired in 2015, essentially forced out by the most right-wing members of his conference, it seemed as if McCarthy would finally achieve that dream. He’d spent years greasing the wheels of the Republican Party, and he was at the right place in order of succession. But the House Freedom Caucus, the small, newly formed bloc of unmanageable and ultraconservative Republicans, was divided on whether to oppose McCarthy and support someone else. Representative Raúl Labrador in particular felt McCarthy was not sufficiently conservative, according to a Freedom Caucus member with knowledge of the group’s internal discussions.
Even more foreboding for McCarthy, rumors of an affair with Representative Renee Ellmers, the now-former congresswoman from North Carolina who came into Washington as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave, were swirling, which spurred Representative Walter B. Jones to circulate a letter urging Republican leaders to substantiate they had not done anything embarrassing. (McCarthy and Ellmers have both denied the allegations.) McCarthy had also been damaged by one of the worst gaffes a member of Congress can make— that is, saying the quiet part out loud: He had boasted that the select committee investigating the Benghazi debacle had made Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings collapse.
The conservatives in the caucus began to demand promises that McCarthy knew he couldn’t deliver if elected speaker. His allies began to feel pressure back home about supporting him. Rank-and-file Republicans wondered how chaotic their caucus would be under a McCarthy speakership. In the end, McCarthy eventually withdrew from the running. “The conservatives didn’t trust him. He had rumors about a relationship with another member that were never substantiated in my mind,” former Representative Tom Davis of Virginia recalled. “But basically, they didn’t trust him. They thought he was too much of an operative, and I think he’s tried to overcome that over time.” At the time, Trump cheered McCarthy’s retreat, saying, “We need a really smart and really tough person to take over this very important job!”
In the end, and after much prodding from Boehner, Ryan became speaker as the compromise candidate. It looked as if McCarthy would stay in middle management for a political eternity. Ryan, after all, was the P90X workout devotee who was both conservative enough for the Freedom Caucus and sane enough for the more establishment Republicans in the chamber. He had long styled himself a “House guy,” so leading the body seemed to be something he would stick with for a long time.
That all changed with Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. Ryan and Trump didn’t quite vibe. McCarthy and Trump, on the other hand, did gel, in part because of McCarthy’s careful tending of Trump. He took this effort to extremes, even picking out cherry- and strawberry-flavored Starbursts for the president, after noticing during a trip on Air Force One that Trump liked them the best.
McCarthy’s allies and friends say that his political skill lies in his ability to identify who has power and cozy up to them. McCarthy saw that Trump would determine the future of the GOP and was more than open to sidling his political fortunes up to the president. It worked, to the extent any charm offensive works with Trump. He started calling McCarthy “my Kevin.” (McCarthy’s allies back home bristle at the insinuation presented by the phrasing of “my Kevin”; GOP consultant Abernathy insisted that Trump had only used that term because he had been looking for McCarthy in a room filled with multiple people named Kevin.) After Ryan announced he was stepping down as speaker and leaving Congress, Trump privately complained to colleagues that the Wisconsin Republican was dawdling in his exit, and that McCarthy should step in sooner, according to a Republican who talks regularly to Trump.
Publicly, McCarthy is oftentimes one of Trump’s most strident defenders. When Trump faced questions about his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which would eventually lead to his first impeachment, McCarthy said in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes that the “president did nothing in this phone call that’s impeachable.” That, and his numerous and virulent defenses of Trump against charges of working with Russia in 2016, represented a dramatic shift from a few years earlier when, speaking privately with fellow Republican leaders, the California Republican said, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: [Representative Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.”
There has been no bigger illustration of McCarthy’s thinking process and motivations than around the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol. After initially denouncing Trump’s behavior in connection to the mob attack, McCarthy changed his posture, defending the president and trying to either minimize the importance of the January 6 committee or trip up its process. His gambit has been to side with Trump, pegging the committee as a liberal political stunt instead of a legitimate inquiry. He also refused to name anyone to the select committee after Pelosi rejected two of his five initial choices, a move that has been heavily condemned in recent weeks, including by Trump, as the committee’s public hearings have proved far more effective than most people anticipated.
For weeks ahead of January 6, McCarthy had been echoing Trump’s false claims that he won the election. The day after the 2020 election, McCarthy said at a press conference that Trump would continue to fight for his reelection “until all the votes legally cast are counted.” He predicted that in the end Trump would emerge the winner. In the days that followed, the Republican leader’s public comments about the election increasingly matched Trump’s false assertions. “President Trump won this election,” McCarthy said on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show. “Republicans will not be silenced. We demand transparency. We demand accuracy. And we demand that the legal votes be protected.”
During the chaos at the Capitol on January 6, McCarthy was in close touch with White House aides and Trump himself. He had a panicked exchange with Cassidy Hutchinson, the aide to Mark Meadows who has since testified dramatically before the select committee investigating the insurrection. Hutchinson said that McCarthy excoriated her in a phone call after Trump’s rally speech preceding the attack, recalling that he said: “The president just said he’s marching to the Capitol. You told me this whole week you aren’t coming up here, why would you lie to me?”
As the rioters breached the Capitol and got closer to members of Congress, McCarthy, like other lawmakers, became more panicked. In a phone call, Trump told McCarthy that the rioters cared more about the election results than he did. McCarthy, according to CNN, shot back, “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”
But hours after the rioters were cleared from the Capitol, McCarthy joined more than 100 of his House Republican colleagues in voting to overturn the election results.
For the briefest of moments after the insurrection, it looked as if McCarthy might lead the charge to remove Trump from office and sideline him from politics. About a week after the attack, McCarthy said during a speech on the House floor that “the president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” Privately, McCarthy was sounding even more aggressive. According to New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, he decried Trump’s conduct on January 6 as “atrocious and totally wrong” to other House Republicans in a phone call during the days after the attack. He told his colleagues that he would tell Trump that an impending impeachment resolution against him would pass, and the president would do well to resign.
But in the weeks after January 6, McCarthy drastically moderated his criticism of Trump. It’s not exactly clear why. By one account, Trump at one point reportedly called McCarthy a “pussy,” which McCarthy was made aware of. He undoubtedly also saw polls showing the base rallying around Trump. In late January, McCarthy traveled to Mar-a-Lago to try to repair his relationship with Trump. McCarthy had requested a meeting. He ended up taking a photo with the president, and Trump’s political committee described the meeting as “very good and cordial.” McCarthy’s about-face here was a cynical calculation of which way the wind was blowing. “He doesn’t believe in Trump, he doesn’t believe in Trumpism,” the former congressional staffer said. “He doesn’t believe in protectionism and all this election bullshit, but he feels like if he strays too far away from it, he will absolutely miss his chance to finally get the gavel, which is finally in his grasp.”
For most of the Biden administration, McCarthy has been laying the groundwork for his prospective speakership. When he’s had to deal with the fringiest elements of his caucus, McCarthy has opted against outright punishment. He almost always defers to the carrot instead of the stick. After Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene was found to have attended a white supremacist conference, all McCarthy did was give initial condemnations. Similarly, even though Representative Lauren Boebert was widely denounced for calling Representative Ilhan Omar a member of the “Jihad Squad,” McCarthy only released a statement saying he had talked with her, and she had apologized. Representative Paul Gosar’s tweet sharing a violent anime video of himself attacking Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was largely met with a collective shrug from GOP leadership. One of the few Republicans McCarthy has chastised, Representative Madison Cawthorn, earned the wrath of his colleagues in the conference only because he claimed Washington was a den of coke-filled orgies.
“He’s a consensus builder. He’s not a top-down manager. He’s not his-way-or-the-highway, and I think that is where the John Boehner-benevolent-dictator approach to leadership in the House would’ve fit in well in the 1970s or 1980s,” said ex-Representative Mick Mulvaney, a former Trump acting chief of staff.
Tepid responses— when responding at all— suggest that McCarthy is wary about angering any wing of the Republican Party. If he becomes speaker, that will make his job difficult. Historically, caucus leaders have disciplined members of their own party by taking away committee assignments or offering forceful punishments, a tactic employed by Boehner against Representatives Justin Amash and Tim Huelskamp. If McCarthy were to do that, it would contrast starkly with how he has behaved most of his political career; he is more likely to retaliate against Democrats for removing Greene from committees by doing the same to their members.
McCarthy’s propensity to play nice may be a vestige of his time learning from Bill Thomas, who served in Congress for 28 years. But Thomas served in a very different Republican Party, and a very different House than the one McCarthy is managing today. “Bill Thomas would tell you, ‘Back in the old days, we never did any of our fighting in public, we always did it in conferences.’ And I think Kevin watched Bill Thomas build these coalitions,” said Beene, the Bakersfield journalist. “[McCarthy] came up under one set of rules, and the rules have changed.”
Thomas Massie, a Republican representative from Kentucky who frequently clashed with Boehner, said he believed the leadership tactic of kicking members off committees was “inappropriate,” and he praised McCarthy for not taking that route. However, he acknowledged, “we’re in the minority, and it’s easy to be nice when there’s not much to lose.”
McCarthy’s conciliatory tendencies have served him well in some respects. Allies of McCarthy will point to his forging of a strong relationship with Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the bellicose Freedom Caucus leader and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. Where Boehner and Ryan had an antagonistic relationship with the more extreme ends of the conference, McCarthy has cultivated relationships to ensure his standing with them, at least temporarily. “He doesn’t just know your name. He knows your spouse’s name. He knows your dog’s name. He knows your favorite athletic team. He knows what you like to drink or smoke or what candy you like. I mean, his mastery of the individual relationships in the conference is pretty impressive,” said Representative Tom Cole, the respected ranking member of the Rules Committee. “Beyond that, he’s just a hard guy not to like.” This camaraderie largely does not extend to Democrats— his sole relationship with Democratic leadership appears to be with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer— or even to some Republicans: He does not have a close relationship, sources told us, with Mitch McConnell.
But a few months before the November elections, some congressional Republicans are privately unsure if McCarthy even has the votes to become speaker. There’s almost always some last-minute alternative candidate who emerges in defiance of the front-runner. It’s likely a long shot will throw his or her hat in the ring, but congressional Republicans interviewed for this article also suggested that a more serious candidate like House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s longtime deputy and occasional rival, would make a play for the speakership. Others have mentioned House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, who has spent the past year burnishing her credentials with the MAGA crowd.
And speaking of that crowd, there is the question of Trump’s blessing, which McCarthy does not quite have yet. Recently, Trump endorsed McCarthy for reelection but not specifically to lead the caucus— a point Trump has stressed in public interviews. That’s unlikely to deter McCarthy, who often responds to rejection with persistence and even stronger charm offensives. Republicans close to both McCarthy and Trump say the California Republican knows that his prospects to lead the caucus depend in large part on Trump’s backing, a point that Trump, too, is well aware of.
…Republicans who boast ideologies that were once at the fringe of the party are increasingly winning primaries, meaning that representatives like Greene and Boebert may be joined by more fellow ideologues. [Q-Anon freak Mary] Miller, a freshman, has come under fire for appearing to praise Hitler and calling the overturning of Roe v. Wade a victory for “white life.” In West Virginia’s member-on-member primary, moderate Republican Representative David McKinley lost to Trump-endorsed Representative Alex Mooney.
If Republicans retake control of the House of Representatives in 2022, that will open the door for some of the fringiest lawmakers in the caucus to lead congressional investigations as well as for rabid interest in impeaching Cabinet members. “They will likely impeach [Attorney General] Merrick Garland,” predicted congressional scholar Norm Ornstein. “I think they want to hamstring the Justice Department and delegitimize it as much as they can.” And there is the strong possibility that they will move to impeach Biden over, well, something— the situation at the border is an oft-cited contender. Senator Ted Cruz and a number of House Republicans have said as much; McCarthy has said only that the Republicans wouldn’t impeach Biden “for political purposes,” which of course still leaves the door wide open to an impeachment on what McCarthy would tout as substantive, legal grounds.
Jordan (one of the two members Pelosi refused to put on the January 6 committee) will probably become chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Representative James Comer of Kentucky would take charge of the House Oversight Committee. Comer, in his current capacity as ranking member of the Oversight Committee, has already spearheaded a Hunter Biden–related attack, sending a letter to Biden’s art dealer, Georges Bergès, demanding correspondence between the Biden son and the White House, and asking Bergès about the prices fetched by the younger Biden’s canvases. Then of course there are his business dealings with China and his now-infamous laptop, discovered in a Delaware repair shop in 2020.
…McCarthy has made inroads with the hard-right faction of his conference, as evidenced by his relationship with Jordan. But it may be difficult to wrangle a caucus filled with members who dispute the results of the 2020 election and often abhor compromising with the opposite party. This is not to say that cooperation across the aisle is impossible; just last year, Representative Kelly Armstrong, a hard-line conservative, teamed up with Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries on a bill to address sentencing disparities for crack cocaine, which garnered nearly 150 Republican votes.
But there is a conceivable future where Congress will need to raise the debt limit to avoid having the country default on its debts, for example, and McCarthy will have to contend with dozens of House Republicans who will not wish to bail out a Democratic president. What will McCarthy do? When asked what the House would be like under Speaker McCarthy, Representative Adam Kinzinger shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s going to be weird though,” Kinzinger said.
If he does become speaker, McCarthy’s famed propensity for maintaining power through personal relationships will be pushed to its limit. Thus far, McCarthy has been able to address any disagreements largely behind closed doors, and with limited consequences for offenders; Liz Cheney’s removal as chair of the GOP conference was perhaps the greatest punishment any Republican has received over the past two years. But he may face opposition from his right flank echoing what his two predecessors, Boehner and Ryan, contended with while McCarthy waited in the wings. Heavy is the hand that holds the gavel, particularly if the other hand is preoccupied with placating the Freedom Caucus and Donald Trump. McCarthy rose to the precipice of the speakership through charm and conciliation. His ascendance has been about making the people he needs for advancement happy— including Donald Trump. But being speaker is a job that requires confronting colleagues in not just the opposing party, but one’s own. That will be especially true for anyone leading the Republican Party, as its members lurch more toward extremism. When a moment of truth confronts him, will McCarthy have the backbone to choose the defense of democratic principles over the pursuit of partisan power? His choices so far indicate which course of action he will pursue.