Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy has yet to win the speaker's gavel, but he is already stepping into a rhetorical minefield that shows the perils of the job.
McCarthy, the no. 2 House Republican, who is favored to become the top leader in Congress after Speaker John A. Boehner steps down at the end of month, gave an interview Tuesday night to Fox News in which he seemed to concede a key Democratic talking point: that the GOP investigation into the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, is all about politics.
"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" said McCarthy, of Bakersfield. "But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen."
Republicans have long insisted that the committee was established to try to get the truth behind the deaths in Benghazi of four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, and not muddy up Clinton, the secretary of State at the time and the Democrats' likely 2016 presidential nominee. Any damage inflicted on Clinton was incidental, they insisted. It was Democrats who have called the committee a political witch hunt.
Opponents feasted on McCarthy's comments.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Burbank Democrat who is one of the party's top voices on intelligence matters, called McCarthy's statement a blunt admission that the committee's "true purpose had little to do with finding out anything new of that tragic night that claimed four American lives, and everything to do with attacking a likely Democratic nominee for president."
"McCarthy laid bare the abusive purpose of this taxpayer-funded committee," he added.
The pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record piled on, calling McCarthy's admission "disgraceful."
McCarthy, who in his fifth term would be the least experienced member of Congress in more than a century to lead the House, surely knows how treacherous the task will be. He has held the No. 2 job for more than a year. But there's nothing like seeing the bright lights firsthand.
He's trying to show insurgent conservatives that he's willing to fight hard for their principles. At the same time, he is facing scrutiny from a broader American audience as he tries to show that his party can govern, despite the intraparty feuds that led to congressional paralysis and the resignation of Boehner, effective Oct. 30.
McCarthy has been using the Benghazi committee as an example that he can lead "a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win." In that vein, he has also highlighted a GOP plan to enlist a committee to scrutinize Planned Parenthood, rather than risk a government shutdown by trying to strip the organization of its funding as some conservatives have demanded.
But as Boehner can attest, it's a tough balancing act. In the same interview, McCarthy was asked to grade Boehner's performance. It was the ultimate test of the stress he is facing: McCarthy served alongside Boehner as his top deputy, but the conservatives who pushed Boehner to resign have lambasted him as a squish.
McCarthy's grade for Boehner? B-minus.
Yikes, no wonder Boehner is heading for the exit.