WASHINGTON — For the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Rep. Kevin McCarthy traveled the country recruiting and coaching anti-establishment, tea party-backed candidates for the 2010 election.
Many of the candidates recruited by McCarthy and his fellow Republican “young guns” — Reps. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin — went on to win, creating a GOP majority and propelling the amiable congressman from Bakersfield into the No. 3 post in the House leadership, majority whip, whose job is to count votes and “whip up” support for the party’s positions.
In the years since, however, many of the new members McCarthy recruited have repeatedly refused to follow the leadership’s lead, and the whip’s operation has had a number of high-profile public stumbles. Nearly three years into the job, it’s still an open question whether McCarthy can corral, or even effectively keep track of, the majority he helped create.
FOR THE RECORD
“House of Cards": An article about U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) in Saturday’s A section incorrectly attributed the drama series “House of Cards” to HBO. Netflix produced the program.
The question is a crucial one as Republicans try to find a way out of the standoff that has caused a government shutdown. With Washington stalemated, Democrats, as well as many Republicans, wonder whether the GOP leadership has enough control to deliver on a deal if one is negotiated.
“McCarthy, Cantor and Ryan did a wonderful job of using this ‘young guns’ program to not only raise their own profile, but find people who could win,” said Steven C. LaTourette, a long-serving GOP congressman from Ohio who retired at the start of this year, citing frustration with the inability of his caucus to make compromises.
“Clearly, they had the expectation that it would be like in the old days: You helped me get elected; I will be loyal to you. It’s not working out that way.”
Managing the GOP caucus, La Tourette said, resembles owning a pet alligator: “You feed and feed and feed it, thinking it will be grateful, and then one day, it bites your arm off.”
GOP leaders have suffered a series of high-profile failures this year. A comprehensive farm bill they blessed fell short of the votes needed on the House floor. The leadership proved unable to muster a majority of Republicans to pass any of the bills, known as appropriations, that fund government agencies. And House leaders had to rely on Democratic votes to pass relief for Superstorm Sandy victims and a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
In some of those cases, Cantor, the majority leader, and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) seemed caught by surprise that their positions lacked majority support.
McCarthy, however, defends his performance and says the stubbornness of his conference has resulted in conservative wins at the bargaining table, however messy the process has been.
“Sure, people have different ideas of how to get to a point, how fast to get there, and what direction to take. Someone might use Rand McNally maps. Someone else might use a Garmin,” he said, referring to a popular GPS device. “They both end up at the same place. It’s just a different way to get there. Sometimes that creates a challenge.”
The process has become more chaotic by choice, he says.
McCarthy likes to illustrate the changes in the House by talking about a conversation with Kevin Spacey, the actor, who came to visit when he set out to research his role in the HBO series “House of Cards,” in which he depicts a wily congressional leader who consolidates power by bullying, scheming and coercing the caucus to his will.
The House majority whip could offer the “House of Cards” actor advice on many things: how to charm constituents, recruit candidates, run a shrewd campaign. But for hardball tactics like the ones Spacey’s character reveled in, the actor had arrived several years too late.
“We went through things, and [Spacey] said, you know, ‘Tell me how you twist arms,’” McCarthy said during one of several recent interviews in his stately Capitol office.
“It is not like that now,” the congressman told him.
Indeed, among the first pledges the new majority made good on was to jettison the billions of dollars of “earmarks” that previous congressional leaders — and Spacey’s fictional character — used to sway members’ positions. The move was one of several the GOP adopted that weakened the leadership’s influence.
The heavy-handed ways of previous GOP leaders, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, had worn on the rank and file, McCarthy said. In the new media landscape, efforts to push the caucus into a position can be upended in a matter of minutes on Twitter. It is just not practical, he says, nor desirable, to exert the kind of pressure Republican leaders once used.
There is another school of thought, however, which holds that the current GOP whip lost influence over his caucus through missteps.
McCarthy and Cantor encouraged the defiant stance of the tea-party-backed members they helped elect, said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, an expert on Congress and prominent critic of the GOP leadership.
“They thought if and when they needed to pull back, they could get their members to pull back,” he said. “It was unreasonable given the people they were dealing with and what they had pledged to do.”
In 2011, when the last round of negotiations on the debt ceiling went into a tailspin, Republicans had the leverage to win long-sought reforms to the tax code or changes in Social Security and other entitlements, Ornstein said. Instead, they ended up securing only the roundly panned across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
McCarthy had rallied his troops in 2010 with “A Pledge to America,” a 21-page document laying out detailed commitments — an approach that has long been in his playbook.
As California Assembly GOP leader during the budget crises during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, McCarthy endeared himself to national groups such as Americans for Tax Reform when he and almost every other GOP lawmaker signed a pledge not to raise taxes under any circumstances.
Their refusal to negotiate on that point cost them a rare opportunity to advance the rest of the GOP agenda in California. Then, after McCarthy left Sacramento for Washington, voters approved a multibillion-dollar tax hike on themselves. They also changed the state constitution to strip the legislative minority of its power to block budgets. And they awarded Democrats a historic two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature, essentially rendering the state’s Republicans irrelevant.
Whatever the outcome of the shutdown in Washington, though, few are betting on McCarthy’s star to fade. Even lawmakers deeply frustrated with the GOP leadership are fond of the congressman, the son of a fireman who opened his first business, a sandwich shop, at age 19 by pouring in $5,000 he won in the lottery.
McCarthy “knows your kids, your family, what makes you tick,” said Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), a lawmaker who bemoans the state of GOP leadership overall.
McCarthy showers caucus members with invitations for morning bike rides, movie nights and dinners. The walls in his large suite of offices are adorned with framed black-and-white photos of caucus members in action in Congress; the members relish bringing constituents and donors through to see.
His marathon “listening sessions” are therapy for even the grumpiest in the rank and file.
But despite all his talk of letting the caucus work its will, McCarthy occasionally lets some frustration show. In a recent talk in Newport Beach, according to an account in the Daily Pilot, he admitted that the job might be a lot less challenging if he could do it in the style of Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, who, in the show, cleared his path by killing a fellow congressman.
“If I could murder one member,” McCarthy joked, “I’d never have to worry about another vote.”