Kevin McCarthy has suffered six defeats in his attempt to get the 218 votes to become Speaker, failing each time by about 16 votes. The numbers have barely budged and it must be humiliating for him to have Democrat Hakeem Jeffries get more votes than him with a solidly united caucus.
After its fourth vote, the House has still not elected a speaker. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California won 201 votes. Here's the breakdown of each lawmaker's vote: https://t.co/wpkcBBHByH pic.twitter.com/69g57T4EJv
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 4, 2023
The sixth vote also gave him just 201 votes.
It seems clear that there is a hard core of Republicans who hate McCarthy with a passion and this is deeply puzzling to me because his whole career has been of schmoozing and cultivating relationships to get ahead. He really has no core principles or convictions, which are the things that usually arouses strong antagonisms. Jonathan Blitzer took a deep look at his political evolution starting from his early days as a aide in Bakersfield CA for his local congressman Bill Thomas and a California state assemblymen
In an [CA state] assembly dominated by Democrats, McCarthy faced a bind. Because conservatives outnumbered moderates in the minority, there wasn’t a strong appetite for compromise. Yet the Republicans lacked the power to pass legislation. Jim Brulte, who was the minority leader in the state senate at the time, told me, “When you’re the minority leader in the California State Assembly, you can only lead by sheer force of personality.” McCarthy distributed books (Newt Gingrich on politics), iPods, and watches; he planned Party retreats and organized weekly bipartisan basketball games at a Sacramento gym. He had presents ready for members’ birthdays and their children’s graduations. When Núñez, the Democrat, became the speaker of the assembly, he kept a binder with biographical information on his members. McCarthy paged through it once, while the two were chatting in the state capitol. “I have the same thing,” he told Núñez. “Except I have wedding anniversaries in mine. You don’t.”
Former congressman Bill. Thomas who mentored McCarthy and whose seat McCarthy took when Thomas retired described him.
“The Kevin McCarthy who is now, at this time, in the House isn’t the Kevin McCarthy I worked with. At least from outward appearances. You never know what’s inside, really,” Thomas said. “Kevin basically is whatever you want him to be. He lies. He’ll change the lie if necessary. How can anyone trust his word?”
Thomas had been willing to use his power not just to pass bills but to settle partisan scores. What struck him now was a tactical dilemma: if everyone in the conference knew that McCarthy would do anything to hold the Speakership, then he’d have no way of enforcing discipline. “Everything is focussed on becoming Speaker,” Thomas said. “What do you do after?” As the Party’s chief congressional fund-raiser, McCarthy could help get members elected. “You can’t hold the money over them anymore,” Thomas went on. “Now you’re in. What have you got that keeps them tied to you?”
McCarthy’s lack of core values are legendary.
“Everyone knows the joke,” a former House staffer told me. “All Kevin McCarthy cares about is Kevin McCarthy. He is the man for this moment.” His main strength has always been his malleability. There are no red lines, core policy beliefs, or inviolable principles, just a willingness to adapt to the moods of his conference.
Months later, [Republican congressman Adam] Kinzinger was in the middle of a conversation near the House floor when McCarthy bumped him hard from behind. “He shoulder-checks me,” Kinzinger told me. “This is the most junior-high place since junior high. And he’s the most junior-high leader.” Kinzinger went on, “I thought it was a good relationship, but you also realize he’s a pretty vacuous, hollow guy who makes everyone think they have a great relationship with him.”
In an effort to ingratiate himself with the hardliners, McCarthy has also joined himself at the hip to Trump. But even Trumps’s full throated endorsement did not sway any votes.
When the full election returns started to come in, later in November, the Party looked to have a razor-thin majority—five votes. Five outer-fringe Republicans immediately said that they’d block McCarthy from becoming Speaker. The Freedom Caucus wants McCarthy to make changes to House procedure that will allow them to obstruct future legislation. Even if McCarthy concedes, members of the Freedom Caucus profit from attacking him: the far right is no longer beholden to the Party for money, since it raises its own online by going nuclear. All of them represent increasingly conservative districts where their constituents don’t want them to compromise. Although McCarthy has done more than any other top Republican to accommodate Trumpism, he is still the establishment.
I would have thought that the hardliners would like his malleability because they could push him around and get what they wanted. Him being seen as an ‘establishment figure’ would not matter if he was willing to appease them, as he has repeatedly shown a willingness to do.
McCarthy has spent the past seven years, since he last ran for Speaker, working to shore up his support on the right. Previously, Freedom Caucus members were not given the top jobs on committees, because Party leadership considered them too extreme. McCarthy has brought figures such as Jim Jordan into the establishment—Jordan will soon have one of the most prestigious jobs in the conference, the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, where he’ll have the power to harass the Administration.
“The way he maneuvers is he gives everyone what they want,” the senior Hill staffer said, of McCarthy. “It’s all about member management. His constituents are the members of the Republican conference.”
Recently, McCarthy has been in marathon meetings with members of the Freedom Caucus, trying to reach agreements on changes to the House rules. The one demand he has actively resisted is the “motion to vacate the chair,” the strategy that pressured Boehner: it would allow a single member to force a vote on McCarthy’s ouster. It’s the only deal breaker for McCarthy because it’s the only one that directly threatens his Speakership. He appears to be flexible on nearly everything else.
There are some suggestions that the opposition to him is personal, though that too is puzzling given his reported affability and ingratiating habits.
John Cassidy writes that this fiasco may be consequences of the trajectory the GOP has been on.
Over the past few decades, the G.O.P. has gone from being a ruthless and disciplined party of limited government and trickle-down economics to a party of anti-government protest to, now, a party of performative verbiage—in which the likes of Gaetz and Boebert (and, of course, Trump) are far more interested in boosting their follower count, raising money, and appearing on “The Sean Hannity Show” or Newsmax than they are in governance.
This gradual substitution of theatric self-promotion for serious politics has been ongoing ever since Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, and Tuesday’s events merely represented its logical culmination: a newly elected House Republican majority reduced to a rabble incapable of performing the basic function of selecting a leader.
The impasse has resulted in speculation that McCarthy might make a deal with Democrats to get some votes to carry him over the top. I don’t think that it will happen because this would be viewed as the nuclear option, cementing the view of him as as establishment figure.
So what do the hardliners want other than not wanting McCarthy? That is not clear. Are they hoping to grind McCarthy down so that he withdraws and then they can vote for some else for Speaker. But who? None of the people they have put forward has any kind of significant support. And McCarty’s supporters’ can play the same game and deny that person a majority. Are they simply enjoying the opportunity to shut down the government which they see as evil? Who knows?
But that still does not answer the basic question: I can understand why people have contempt for McCarthy. People without core principles tend to arouse such feelings. But why do they have such a visceral dislike for someone who seems like such a milquetoast?