The puzzling hatred of Kevin McCarthy

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.

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?


  1. steve oberski says

    I don’t have the stomach to watch FOX “news” but I will bet you a Canadian toonie that the current Republican freak show is somehow the fault of the Democrats in that particular echo chamber.

  2. JM says

    There doesn’t seem to be a single reason, it varies. The biggest group are radical right representatives who see McCarthy as exactly the sort of spineless Washington swamp creature that they want to get rid of. The more he makes convoluted deals to try and get into the office the more he irritates them and so they end up hating him.
    Matt Gaetz is also on the anti-McCarthy side but he seems more upset that McCarthy had a soul to sell for power. Gaetz wishes he could do the same thing but he started as an empty shell of a human.

  3. says

    I would have thought that the hardliners would like his malleability because they could push him around and get what they wanted.

    They do like it, and they also know that they get what they want by throwing tantrums, refusing to cooperate, and demanding everything for nothing — because McCarthy has already shown he’ll always cave to such behavior.

    But why do they have such a visceral dislike for someone who seems like such a milquetoast?

    Because: a) they hate people who seem in any way “weak,” even when said weaklings are giving them everything they want; and b) todays Republicans are nothing more than a gaggle of mean, stupid, hateful, vindictive and otherwise empty-headed people, whose entire lives, careers and images are centered around hate and resentment. Bullying people and refusing to cooperate with anyone on anything is pretty much all they know.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … why do they have such a visceral dislike for someone who seems like such a milquetoast?

    Thom Hartmann suggests, as JM & Raging Bee propose, that the tendency toward compromise itself produces a rage reaction -- particularly when that compromise ends up supporting a New Deal or Great Society program that keeps the powerful from dragging us back to the stratified economics of the 1920s. Also, racism.

  5. Deepak Shetty says

    I still find it unbelievable that there arent 6 sane Republicans who can stand up and say vote for the majority candidate by round 5 else I vote for the next highest candidate (and if that happens to be a Democrat so be it).

  6. JM says

    @5 Deepak Shetty: It would be handing over too much power to the Democrats. The Speaker has a lot of direct and indirect power over which bills get voted on by the Senate among other powers. The Republican agenda would be dead if a Democrat takes the office.
    In worse case the reverse will happen. If it actually reaches the point that the Senate has to pass some bills for the country to function then a few Democrats will vote for McCarthy. However, because they will get nothing for doing this they will let the Republicans flail as long as possible.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    Eleven votes lost so far. I wonder just how long this can go on?

    In any sensible system the man consistently getting the most votes would just… win. Especially after 11 attempts haven’t got anywhere.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    I shall concede your point if you can tell me which of the three candidates is a woman.

  9. KG says

    More than three candidates have been nominated, and a woman could be nominated on any round. Maybe that would break the deadlock?

    Incidentally, I know the Speaker doesn’t have to be a member of the House (some numpty nominated Trump in one of the rounds), but are there any rules restricting who trhey can be? Do they have to be an American citizen? Adult? Alive? Human?

  10. sonofrojblake says

    I was referring to the figures quoted in the original post, showing the votes for three men. The man consistently getting the most votes in every round was Hakeem Jeffries. I don’t see any other candidates, actual or suggested, as relevant. Correct me if anyone else is relevant.

    At this point I’m wondering if I could put myself forward…

  11. sonofrojblake says

    (Related: I’m surprised someone hasn’t made a comedy attempt to become Speaker, along the lines of Lord Buckethead’s runs for the UK parliament or Al Murray The Pub Landlord’s run against Nigel Farage. Then again US politics has always come across to me as stereotypically humourless. Can’t John Oliver stand, though? He’s got a functioning sense of humour AND a US passport.)

  12. Deepak Shetty says

    It would be handing over too much power to the Democrats

    Sure but thats the point , either the extreme compromises or everyone Republican loses quite a bit more.
    In addition does anyone think that compromising with this set is going to to placate them or embolden them ?

  13. consciousness razor says

    KG, #12:

    Incidentally, I know the Speaker doesn’t have to be a member of the House (some numpty nominated Trump in one of the rounds), but are there any rules restricting who trhey can be? Do they have to be an American citizen? Adult? Alive? Human?

    We do have Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the US Constitution, assuming that’s still considered a “rule” that we actually follow:

    No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

    The Speaker is of course such an office in the US. So…
    (1) Congress couldn’t decide that their choice will also be granted that sort of title, along with whatever other privileges that may come with being Speaker.

    So if, for instance, the chosen Speaker happens to be a deceased llama, it can’t also be bestowed the title “Earl of Butte” (county) or some such, at least not officially by anybody in the government. If however someone else gives the llama corpse that title and whatever may come with it, that’s probably still okay. It just can’t be “granted”/recognized by the United States, and presumably the supremacy clause and so forth (Article 6) means state and local governments within the US (which are subordinate to the federal government) don’t have that power either.

    (2) Assuming it’s not allowed by Congress, although it’s not ruled out that it could be so allowed, our dead llama Speaker (and possibly Earl, unofficially) may not “accept any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

    Leaving aside the simple and obvious possibility that Congress could just decide to allow it, this one seems pretty straightforward in intent, although exactly what counts and what doesn’t is rather vague. I suppose, if it’s possible for the dead llama Speaker to violate this rule or for that rule to somehow be violated on its behalf, then that is … a problem. It’s not clear that it could be “impeached” on those grounds (not exactly), and I’m not sure how that all would work, but the (deceased, camelid) Speaker could one way or another be removed from office by (another) vote in the House. Subsequently, there would be (another) vote in the House to decide a new Speaker, so we can start this wonderful process all over again.

  14. consciousness razor says

    One thing to note is that the Speaker is third in the presidential line of succession, so a Speaker which is dead llama (i.e., not a natural-born citizen at least 35 years old and a resident for at least 14 years, and so forth) would simply be disqualified for that specifically.

    Thus, they’d be skipped and the next in line would be the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. By the way, that is also an office which is just chosen arbitrarily by part of the legislature (this time, the Senate), with nothing in particular in the Constitution which says who or what can serve in that capacity. Next, it would go to Secretary of State, which again doesn’t have many actual requirements either, other than not being a member of Congress — and if they happen to be a dead llama, that one’s easy.

    Anyway, none of that actually prevents someone/something from holding the office of Speaker itself. It could be a consideration, I guess, but this often just boils down to “we’re going to assume Congress won’t do anything too crazy, and if they do, then … wait … what the fuck just happened?”

  15. seachange says

    What politicians say and what they do are not the same.

    I don’t think they care one way or another about McCarthy. What they do care about is power.

  16. John Morales says

    consciousness razor, such dry and sardonic humour…

    That’s the thing with this current iteration of the party and of Trump in particular; nothing outside the letter of the law (ahem) or unprecedented is to be ruled out (ahem), stuff this business of precedent and protocol and integrity.

    Of character.

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