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Kevin McCarthy Is Only Barely Better Than His GOP Enemies

McCarthy Agonistes. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

You may have heard the old saying about academic politics being especially vicious because the stakes are so low. In many respects, that thought also applies to the bitter fight underway for control of the U.S. House Republican Conference. Whether right-wing rebels succeed or fail in once again derailing Kevin McCarthy’s lifelong ambition to become Speaker, House Republicans will have relatively little power in the current Congress to do much of anything other than cutting demonstrative capers and holding show-trial investigations of various fever-swamp rabbit holes. That’s important to understand before falling prey to the prevailing narrative of McCarthy as a sort of paragon of civilization battling to stave off the vandals of the House Freedom Caucus.

Consider the first absolutely critical priority McCarthy had planned to address had his elevation to Speaker gone as planned: an effort to rescind appropriations made last year to hire 87,000 new IRS personnel — mostly to fill vacancies and anticipate retirements at the beleaguered agency. House Republicans, and not just the ultras challenging McCarthy, are deeply invested in the totally fabricated idea that this constitutes an “army” of auditors prepared to besiege millions of innocent middle-class taxpayers. I mean, they just made it up because it’s such a fine object for anti-Washington demagoguery. The other “urgent” tasks — demanded by “the American people,” as we were constantly told — were laid out by Jim Jordan in his speech nominating McCarthy on January 3. Since Jordan was the unwilling vehicle for the House GOP rebels voting against McCarthy on the second and third ballots, his view of the House agenda might be considered a consensus view for both sides of the Speakership fight. Here’s how the New York Post summarized Jordan’s impassioned remarks:

Jordan … said Republicans should focus on three objectives because “that’s what the people want us to do.”

“We have a border that is no longer a border. We have a military that can’t meet its recruitment goals. We have bad energy policy, bad education policy, record spending, record inflation, record debt, and a government that has been weaponized against ‘we the people,’ the very people we represent,” Jordan said.

He said the first thing Republicans need to do is pass “legislation to address all that.”

In other words, Republicans need to pass “messaging” bills that will be dead on arrival in the Senate. But there’s more:

“We have to pass a budget that makes sense, that’s good common sense​. ​Then do the 12 appropriation bills that recognize​s​ the people’s money, not ours, and send it to the Senate and then stand firm on that legislation​,” he said to cheers from most of his Republican colleagues.​

“If they will take it up​ ​a​nd Joe Biden won’t sign it​, we can stand firm ​… we can have that fight​,” Jordan said.

This means that House Republicans — virtually all of them, mind you — want to reject out of hand and, if possible, rescind bipartisan spending measures negotiated by their Senate colleagues. That may or may not be a good idea, or a reflection of conservative principles, but it’s entirely symbolic, not a priority that can be pursued to fruition. And one more thing:

The Ohioan, who is on track to lead the House Judiciary Committee in the 118th Congress, said Republicans need to conduct proper oversight and investigations of the Biden administration.

“This idea that bureaucrats who never put their name on a ballot but think they run the country, who have assaulted our constituents​’​ First Amendment liberties, they need to be held accountable​, that has to happen,” he said.

This is all code for the FBI-conspiracy tale involving Hunter Biden and the 2020 election, the alleged persecution of the “patriots” who assaulted the Capitol on January 6, and the above-mentioned IRS “army of auditors” fable.

The more you examine the ambitions of the “Establishment” House Republicans and the supposedly very different demands of the anti-McCarthy rebels, the more it begins to look like a fight over which House Republicans get to steer this clown car of a conference that is allergic to bipartisanship and has nothing to do other than prepare itself for 2024. Yes, the rebels’ demands to change the House rules to give them more of a grip on the wheel might have consequences down the road for governance of the people’s chamber. But it won’t have much real-life significance.

There is one possible and very important exception to the characterization of Team McCarthy and its Republican critics as Tweedledee and Tweedledumber: One thing the House under GOP direction really must do this year is approve an increase in or suspension of the public-debt limit. Without that, an already shaky global and national economy could be thrown into a deep, deep depression. Few politicians in either party are completely innocent of the occasional demagogic gesture against debt-limit measures advanced by the administration in power. But Republicans generally and Freedom Caucus types in particular are far more prone to the deeply irresponsible position that breaching the debt limit actually doesn’t matter or is, in fact, a positive thing that will force “the American people” to accept limits on popular government programs they would otherwise oppose.

McCarthy, pretty flexible in his moral code, is thought to be more likely than some of the available alternatives to go along with the measures necessary to avoid an economic calamity. I don’t know if that’s true, and even if it is, the Californian may have already traded away the option of being statesmanlike on this actual matter of genuine public concern. Replacing him with someone else as Speaker may simply confirm that House Republicans are united after all — in making performative extremism job one.

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Kevin McCarthy Is Only Barely Better Than His GOP Enemies