Column: McCarthy, the Republican ‘leader’ so desperately trying to be a follower

Kevin McCarthy applauds next to President Trump on a dais
Rep. Kevin McCarthy has been clawing his way upward by embracing Trump, distancing himself from Trump, and trying to embrace him again.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

This week was a big anniversary for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican minority leader, but one he’d rather forget. For the rest of us, however, the events six years ago are worth recalling — to understand just who McCarthy is, what he’s so desperate to become and why he’s doing the craven things he does to realize his dream.

On Sept. 28, 2015, Republicans controlled Congress. McCarthy, then the House majority leader, announced a bid to become the speaker. He was favored to succeed Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, who was resigning rather than be ousted by party hard-liners contemptuous that he wasn’t enough of a battler against President Obama. McCarthy vowed to be that brawler. But a day later, live on Fox News, the congressman from Bakersfield committed a rare bit of truth-telling.

Fox’s Sean Hannity had badgered him: What had Republicans achieved under his and Boehner’s leadership? After minutes of testy back-and-forth, McCarthy finally had an answer to satisfy the conservative host. Not about some law to make the country a better place. Instead McCarthy boasted that polls showed House Republicans had succeeded in undermining Hillary Clinton, the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, by their prolonged investigation of Islamic militants’ attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans in 2012 when she was secretary of State:


“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”

McCarthy pleased Hannity, but in saying the quiet part out loud he’d confirmed Democrats’ contention that the Benghazi probe was purely partisan; the Clinton campaign rushed out a video ad of McCarthy’s gaffe. Republicans questioned his political smarts, and a faction of House right-wingers endorsed a rival for speaker. On Oct. 8, McCarthy abandoned his candidacy.

The episode reflected the essence of McCarthy — an ambitious partisan rather than a constructive, substantive legislator. After election to the California State Assembly in 2002 and to Congress in 2006, he immediately moved in Sacramento and Washington to climb the party’s leadership ladders. Much like his Republican Senate counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, McCarthy is what the late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona used to describe as a “party over country” politician.

McConnell has said he’s “100%” focused on blocking President Biden’s agenda, but lately McCarthy has been working to top him. McCarthy is mobilizing House Republicans against the bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed in the Senate with support from 19 Republicans, including McConnell.

Both men are “leading” Republicans to oppose an essential but unpopular increase in the nation’s debt limit, despite bipartisan responsibility for that debt. They’re demanding that Democrats alone authorize the Treasury to keep borrowing to pay the nation’s bills and avert a catastrophic U.S. default in mid-October; they falsely suggest the increase is needed to cover Democrats’ multitrillion-dollar spending plans, which aren’t law yet and would be spread over a decade if enacted. The government must borrow to cover existing obligations and to offset federal revenue lost to Republicans’ tax cuts.

McCarthy’s humiliation in 2015 only slowed his drive to become speaker. With Republicans favored to win a majority in next year’s midterm election, his ambition dictates every move. He’s virtually measuring the draperies for the suite belonging to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Yes, that’s the one briefly occupied, and vandalized, by the pro-Trump insurrectionists whom some House Republicans now describe as mere tourists, even patriots.


They get little or no reproach from McCarthy. He’s determined not to offend former President Trump or the MAGA base between now and November 2022. He needs their support, first to elect a Republican majority and then to back him for speaker. After all, the far right is no longer a wing of the party, as it was in 2015. It is the party: Trump’s party.

McCarthy is blowing to the MAGA winds now, but the human weather vane went kerflooey for a time after Jan. 6. He’d previously echoed Trump’s election-fraud lies. Even after the Capitol siege, he led House Republicans in voting against certifying electoral votes from two pro-Biden states. McCarthy’s longtime boss and Republican predecessor in Congress, former Rep. Bill Thomas, went on local TV to scorch his erstwhile protege for “supporting, nurturing, the lies of the president” just to advance his political career.

McCarthy opposed Trump’s impeachment a week later. But amid a backlash from party donors to the president’s incitement of the mob, he blamed Trump for the attack and called for his censure. Then came the MAGA blowback. McCarthy rushed to Florida. “Kevin came down to kiss my ass and wants my help to win the House back,” Trump said later, according to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril.”

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, ousted from McCarthy’s Republican leadership circle for condemning Trump, called McCarthy’s pilgrimage to Florida “unforgivable.”

“I would be deeply ashamed of myself,” she said Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “I don’t know how you explain that to your children.”

The explanation is simple: It’s McCarthy’s dream to be speaker, even at the cost of his political soul and the nation’s democratic well-being.

Yet it’s his nightmare to be reliant on a man who returns no one’s loyalty, and who no longer thinks of McCarthy as loyal — “my Kevin.” McCarthy can bend the knee all he wants. Trump stands ready to kick him to the curb.