early and often

The Man in the MAGA Middle

Kevin McCarthy’s campaign to be Speaker means no enemies to the right, left, or center in his caucus.

Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Tom Brenner/The New York Times/REDUX
Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Tom Brenner/The New York Times/REDUX

Kevin McCarthy was the main attraction in the expansive downstairs of a McMansion in suburban Scranton one September evening where he managed to greet attendees, shake their hand, and offer just a moment of bonding before moving on to the next person who almost invariably had a name tag on their shirt and a glass of red wine in their hand.

It’s a skill McCarthy has honed by criss-crossing the country over the past year and encouraging Republican donors to give even more money to help support their candidates, while giving an outline of what a Republican majority could do in 2023. His sales pitch includes old clichés (Joe Biden is Jimmy Carter) and a measured embrace of Donald Trump who was mentioned only twice and praised for foreign policy. Then he closes with what he thinks will be an appealing image to the crowd — Nancy Pelosi handing him the Speaker’s gavel next year.

McCarthy had come to help Republican Jim Bognet beat a Democratic incumbent in a swing district. Bognet had worked on both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns and served a stint at an inside-the-Beltway consultancy before joining the Trump administration and moving back to his hometown to run for Congress. He is the type candidate McCarthy needs not just to win the majority but to also guarantee that he will be speaker.

It’s likely he will achieve the first goal in November and see at least the five pick-ups Republicans need to win 218 seats and the majority. (Analysts predict that the GOP will pick up between roughly one to two dozen seats on November 8). The question is whether, red wave or not, there will be 218 members who support him for speaker next January and whether they will keep on supporting him for the following two years. Most immediately, he will need the hardliners among them to not plunge the global economy into chaos.

The last time there was a Republican House and a Democratic president, Washington was paralyzed with a constant series of showdowns over whether to keep the federal government open and the U.S. Treasury from defaulting on its debts. At the time, McCarthy served as the House Republican whip, tasked to count votes and keep members in line.  In 2011, Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling (the government’s borrowing limit) in exchange for major cuts in federal spending led to Standard & Poor’s downgrading the U.S. government credit rating for the first time ever.  Will Republicans do it again?

“A lot of people, sometimes they will use the debt limit as some extreme —  it’s not going to go anywhere right?” he said in an interview last month, evading the question. “But could you? I don’t feel like putting things in leverage from that point. The one thing you can do, you don’t want to continue to just go and say ‘this debt is going to just keep going.’ So what can we do to get our house in order, together? Because anything that’s big like that you need bipartisan together on.”

Later though, in an interview with Punchbowl, McCarthy signaled more of a willingness to use a potential default on government debt as a way to extract painful political concessions from Democrats to cut Medicare and Social Security. “You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt. And if people want to make a debt ceiling [for a longer period of time], just like anything else, there comes a point in time where, okay, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior,” he said.

Regardless of what approach McCarthy takes the debt ceiling, he’s perfectly willing to play hardball regardless. “If we have the House and the Senate, there’s the appropriations process, there’s the Congressional Review Act to take away regulations, there’s the accountability of bringing in the agencies to testify, then there is reconciliation,” he told me.

Newt Gingrich suggested that House Republicans could say “we want the border controlled before we give you a [continuing resolution]’, I think the country would accept that” and called such a fight a win-win for McCarthy. Either Biden yields, Gingrich said, allowing Republicans “pass a lot of reforms that led people to re-elect our majority or Biden vetoes a lot which leads to a sweeping catastrophic defeat of the Democratic Party in 2024.”

One legislative battle McCarthy would rather avoid talking about is abortion. In the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs decision over the summer, Democrats surged in the polls. Although the political impact of that has receded in recent weeks as voters focus more on inflation, it still has left him trying to balance the GOP’s pro-life base and the pro-choice views of swing voters. When asked if he would put a bill like Lindsey Graham’s 15-week abortion ban on the floor, he equivocated. “Well, the thing I’ve with the Supreme Court decision, it pushed it to the states,” McCarthy said. “I think if you look at the country, the extreme position of the Democrats is not where the country is at. Extreme position the other [sic]. I think the very first bills we’re going to look at is economics. That’s what the country’s most requesting.”

When asked to clarify if making federal abortion policy was not his first priority in a Republican House or whether it is an issue that should be left to the states, McCarthy dodged again. “The states make decisions there,” he said. “It’s a legislative process, we’ll see where the country is at.”

McCarthy and the exiled former House GOP No. 3, Liz Cheney. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

House Republicans have shown a fondness for regicide that would even make the Praetorian Guard blush. Three of the four Republican Speakers in the past half-century were forced out; either resigning after finding the job of managing their conference too impossible or having the conference oust them, as happened to Gingrich. As McCarthy himself acknowledged, “Republicans are very good at taking out their Republican Speakers.”

McCarthy, who represents a deep red area around Bakersfield, California, seems to gravitate to the center of his conference, but the center always seems to be moving. While previous Republican leaders managed fractious conferences and coped with vicious infighting, none has ever dealt with a caucus so broad that it will include at least one member who has voted to impeach Trump, and at least two who appeared at a white nationalist conference.

It explains, in part, the most controversial stretch of McCarthy’s decade-and-a-half long career in Congress.

During the attack on the Capitol, Trump infamously told McCarthy on the phone of the rioters, “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” He reportedly responded “they’re trying to fucking kill me!” Hours later, he, along with a majority of House Republicans, voted just as the rioters wished he would — to throw out the pro-Biden electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania. Yet, when the House voted to impeach Trump one week later, McCarthy took to the House floor to say Trump “bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” But, only weeks after that, McCarthy went to Mar-a-Lago to pay homage to the same man who sent the mob after him to begin with.

This zigzagging continued when McCarthy opposed the initial effort to depose Liz Cheney from Republican leadership where she served as No. 3, working with McCarthy for two years. As she continued her criticism of Trump for attempting to overturn the 2020 election, his attitude, along with those of other Republicans, shifted. He not only supported the successful effort to oust her from leadership several months later, but endorsed her opponent in Wyoming’s Republican primary that Cheney lost by a landslide. In a sign of just how much has changed since January 6, 2021, when House Republicans rolled out their midterm agenda at a September event in western Pennsylvania, seated center stage was Marjorie Taylor Greene.

His gripe with Cheney was not so much her opposition to Trump but simply that she kept on voicing it. In a Republican conference that has grown consistently more MAGA, there is room for dissenters, just as long as they weren’t actively upsetting Trump. In fact, McCarthy-aligned super PACs have backed several Republicans who voted to impeach Trump but who didn’t continue to voice their belief that the former president was undermining democracy. McCarthy forces have also spent in open primaries to back more conventional Republicans over more extreme MAGA candidates. They’ve met mixed success. One McCarthy ally, pro-impeachment David Valadao of California, managed to survive his primary while, in Washington, fellow impeacher Jaime Herrara Beutler, fell short to a far-right candidate with ties to white nationalists. In New York and Florida, McCarthy successfully ensured more mainstream Republicans won safe seat primaries over bomb throws but two candidates he backed in competitive primaries in New Hampshire both fell short to more MAGA Republicans.

Such careful management is the product of hard experience for the 57-year-old Republican. In 2015, he was poised to become Speaker after John Boehner’s shock resignation in the immediate aftermath of Pope Francis’s address to a joint session of Congress. Then there was a right-wing rebellion, fueled by McCarthy botching an interview where he said the Benghazi committee’s real agenda was to kneecap Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. On the eve of a vote where the Republican conference was expected to easily ratify him as their standard bearer, he pulled out of the race, faced with the likelihood that enough dissident Republicans would oppose him on the floor of the House to keep him from getting the necessary majority to take the gavel.

“I’m better prepared now,” McCarthy said, having devoted himself to building relationships with hard right conservatives, like the leaders of the Freedom Caucus, many of whose members stoked the debt-ceiling fights a decade ago. “Probably my biggest advocate is Jim Jordan,” McCarthy said, the pugnacious shirt sleeved Ohio congressman who has been one of Trump’s most vocal defenders on Capitol Hill.

“I think he’s been able to bring in like Freedom Caucus leaders and make them part of the team,” said Don Bacon, a moderate Republican from Nebraska. “So they got buy-in. They used to be on the outside  … when you make them a part of the team, there’s ownership.” The size of the majority would determine just how effective McCarthy would be though. “If you got five, you’re going to struggle,” said Bacon. “If you get a small majority, probably lower your sights a little bit on what you can get done.”

Yet McCarthy’s effort to build support within the conference isn’t simply the result of factional diplomacy. He is a born schmoozer who will always remember the name of your uncle’s cousin and makes himself available to members and also candidates like Colin Schmitt in upstate New York, who raved how accessible and responsive McCarthy was when he had questions about campaign or fundraising strategy. “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,” McCarthy said. “So my job is to find what inspires, find the people, put them in the right seats, and let them excel.”

Or, as Bryan Steil, a second term Republican from Wisconsin, put it “there’s a carrot and a stick approach. And Kevin has the carrot approach.” This applies even to figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene whom McCarthy has publicly defended and wooed in private.

This laissez faire touch is likely to be increasingly effective as a potential Republican majority gets bigger. It’s not simply that McCarthy would have more room for error but many newly elected members from Democratic leaning districts will be less inclined to lob bombs and make life difficult. After all, two years after Gingrich took the majority in 1994, 12 first-term Republicans lost their bids for re-election when Bill Clinton won a second term.

Gingrich’s relationship with Clinton was notoriously frosty, but there is a belief among some that Biden and McCarthy could possibly work together. Tom Cole, a longtime Republican from Oklahoma, expressed hope that the two men could find common ground once if forced to do so. “I’m hopeful that he and Biden can get a relationship going.  I actually think they have more in common. They’re both very likable people. They both have great people skills. They both know the institution. Well, they’re both supremely political. And I think we both know how to strike a deal. So I think he’ll do well.”

However, the most important factor in determining their relationship next year is the desires of House Republicans and it’s not likely that they will want McCarthy and Biden to be like chummy — as Steil noted, it’s likely that the median Republican member in the next conference will have served less than four years in Congress. McCarthy will be leading a group shaped by the Trump era and where institutional memories of ferocious partisan conflict, like voting to overturn the election and impeaching a president twice, are far more vivid than regular order, the appropriations process, and the other banal institutional tasks that once defined Capitol Hill.

If he finally takes power, McCarthy will simply just try to steer to wherever the center of the conference is. After all, it has gotten him this close.

The Man in the MAGA Middle