Kevin McCarthy's conservatism may not be enough for GOP radicals

All you need to know about the predicament Kevin McCarthy faces if he becomes the next speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is summed up in a comment from South Carolina’s Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a member of the insurgent faction within the House Republican caucus that dubs itself the “Freedom Caucus.” Regarding the prospect of McCarthy taking over for Speaker John A. Boehner when he steps down from the job at the end of October, Mulvaney said, “Everybody knows that Kevin’s not a conservative, but Kevin seems to be a pretty good manager.”

McCarthy will have to be not just pretty good, but masterful if he is to succeed at managing a renegade group of GOP congressmen whose definition of “conservative” does not include him. It is absurd to call McCarthy anything but dependably conservative, just as it was erroneous for militant right-wing activists to characterize Boehner as an untrustworthy moderate. As good old George Wallace used to say about Republicans and Democrats, there is not a dime’s worth of difference on policy between Republicans like Boehner and the tea party zealots who drove him out of the speaker’s chair. They all hate Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, taxes on “job creators” and any government rule that inhibits Wall Street financiers, and they are all desperate to slash programs for the poor, kill environmental regulations and rattle sabers at Iran, Russia, China and North Korea.

The only real difference between Boehner and the members of the Freedom Caucus is that Boehner was a political realist. He knew that, without the votes to override a presidential veto, most of the conservative Republican agenda was going nowhere. He knew that past attempts to force an issue by shutting down the government not only hurt the standing of his party with voters, it hurt the country in easily demonstrable ways. Boehner was not about to do it again, and his resignation seems to have guaranteed it will not happen as some feared it would next week. His detractors in the caucus, on the other hand, have taken a Vietnam-era dictum to heart: “We must burn the village in order to save it.” For them, shutting down the government is not a hopeless political tactic, it is a principled stand. Even if it doesn’t work, it still feels awfully good for those who really do not mind seeing the federal beast starved for a while.

The struggle within the Republican party that has manifested itself, not only in Congress, but in the race for the party’s presidential nomination, does not pit conservatives against moderates. There are no moderate Republicans anymore, at least not by the traditional, pre-Ronald Reagan definition. The GOP’s civil war pits pragmatic conservatives against right wingers who are eager for political Armageddon. These militants spring out of the crankier corners of the nation where folks are certain Barack Obama is a Muslim-loving, illegitimate tyrant, where there is a curdling fear that immigrants and welfare-sucking minorities are turning America into a dependent, mongrel society and where Christianity is believed to be under attack from homosexuals, secularists and activist judges.

The people who seethe with righteous anger about the country being stolen from them have no patience for men like Boehner or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They do not want compromise or incremental change; they want to do battle. And they no longer lack for representation. They have champions like Ted Cruz in the Senate and at least 30 like-minded radicals in the House.

How will McCarthy deal with them? First elected to Congress in 2006, the representative from Bakersfield rose quickly to become majority leader last year. He did it not by proving himself a master of the legislative process — he has authored no legislation of significance — but by making friends in all factions and by helping new members get elected, without regard to their political leanings. If he is chosen as speaker, he will be the least experienced man to hold that position since the early 19th century. Nevertheless, no one rises that fast without demonstrating a reasonable level of political talent.

It will be a miracle, though, if it proves to be enough. No speaker can avoid dealing with the opposition party, with Senate leaders and with the occupant of the White House. Sooner or later (my guess is sooner), McCarthy will see the logic of making a deal with the other players in this game because that is the only way anything gets done. As soon as that happens, of course, he will be branded a traitor to true conservatism and the knives will be drawn on the right.

There is a reason John Boehner’s smile was so wide on the day he announced his resignation. The insurrection in his caucus will soon be another man’s problem.

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