debt limit

Kevin McCarthy Is a Survivor, Not a Strategic Genius

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I’m as happy as anybody that Congress is in the process of avoiding a U.S.-debt default. It would have been horrific economically and a sign that rampant stupidity had overtaken our political system. But c’mon: Some of the paeans to the strategic brilliance of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in getting the deal through the House are a bit hard to take.

Yes, McCarthy had to figure out a way to get a deal with Joe Biden that a majority of House Republicans would vote for and that wouldn’t outrage conservatives enough to motivate them to toss him out of his Speakership. But it’s not like he had any choice about placing himself and his country in danger: It was very clear that the key House members who secured his gavel after 15 ballots in January wanted a confrontation with Democrats over the debt limit. Taking the economy hostage was part of the plan all along for converting a narrow Republican majority in one chamber of Congress into some real power and a 2024 talking point. After all, this had worked in similar circumstances during the Obama administration.

McCarthy obviously had to give himself negotiating leverage by devising a debt-limit and spending package that could unify his own conference. Then it was mostly a matter of waiting for Biden to abandon his “no talking to legislative terrorists” position, which the president had to do if he wasn’t willing to gamble on a nonlegislative solution to the debt-limit problem at the risk of losing in the courts or freaking out financial markets. Biden knew that, as chief executive, he’d probably bear the brunt of the blame if things went kablooey. So aside from McCarthy and his party’s irresponsibility, the Speaker had an advantage all along.

The biggest step McCarthy took was after Biden came to the table: ruling out revenue measures as part of any deal. But it wasn’t so hard. The total leverage the fanatics of the House Freedom Caucus had over McCarthy gave the Speaker total leverage over Biden, who knew McCarthy would surely lose his gavel if he caved on this vital piece of conservative dogma. But from that point on, as my colleague Jonathan Chait pointed out, the negotiations were no longer a matter of “horse-trading” but of determining exactly how many concessions Biden would make while maintaining enough Democratic support for the final product to ensure its enactment in a divided Congress. Yes, it required some skill from McCarthy to figure out how high a price he could extort, but he had the whip hand all along.

The deal itself, of course, was never going to satisfy the full membership of the House Freedom Caucus, and it didn’t have to, so long as McCarthy had a majority of House Republicans with him and the HFC refrained from pulling the trigger on a “motion to vacate the chair” (which, of course, it did not do, because it is enjoying its leverage over McCarthy). The structure of the deal, moreover, will provide plenty of opportunities for McCarthy and his troops to posture over spending in the immediate future as appropriations bills come to the House floor. Republicans can wash, rinse, and repeat their anti-government demagoguery with the freedom that comes from knowing a government shutdown rather than a debt default is the worst that can happen now.

Yes, McCarthy deserves some credit for forming an alliance at the beginning of this Congress with extremists like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan, who offer ongoing ideological cover for any GOP House member coming to the Speaker’s aid during this and other crises. But let’s not get carried away. Whatever gambles McCarthy took at the table with Biden, he was playing with house money, and anyone can look audacious doing that.

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Kevin McCarthy Is a Survivor, Not a Strategic Genius