How badly does Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy want to be speaker of the House?
Let us count the ways.
Badly enough to have stifled his initial, justifiable outrage at the outgoing president’s clumsy and unprecedented coup attempt, opting instead, once the dust cleared, to figuratively roll his eyes at the supposed overreaction of rational observers.
Badly enough to have positioned America’s QAnon cover girl prominently over his left shoulder at a televised rally six weeks ago in Pennsylvania, an event not so much about his party’s legislative agenda as sending this message: Look who’s on my side.
Badly enough to have formally announced his candidacy for speaker almost immediately after underdelivering by a margin of between 48 and 62 seats on his hallucinatory forecast of a 60-seat flip. Not only did McCarthy’s red wave not materialize, fluctuating updates on the vote count have, from time to time, portrayed something more akin to a battered but intact blue sea wall.
In the end, Republicans will probably still take the House, but McCarthy’s ascendency to the speakership — though still the most likely outcome — is not assured.
He is in the untenable position of trying to mollify the crazy faction of his party while keeping the more moderate wing, still substantially rooted in reality, in his corner. No one survives attempts at appeasement of that nature and maintains both their integrity and sanity — they sacrifice one or the other — and McCarthy is Exhibit A.
Ohio Republican John Boehner, who served as House speaker for five years, from 2011 to 2015, couldn’t do it, ending his tumultuous tenure after repeated fiscal clashes with the White House but also rare bipartisan accord on trade. Tea party candidates helped elevate him to the speakership in 2010 and tea party members prevented him from accomplishing much once he got there. On his tearful way out the door, he told reporters his exit was a harbinger of “the end of the two-party system.”
Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan couldn’t do it, lasting just over three years as speaker, from 2015 to 2019. He had been a somewhat unwilling candidate for the job in the first place, stepping up reluctantly after McCarthy unexpectedly dropped out of the race, and upon his departure expressed some of the same frustrations, albeit less colorfully, as Boehner.
Neither man dealt with anyone as unhinged as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who last year posited that Jewish-controlled “lasers or blue beams of light” caused the wildfire that destroyed the Northern California community of Paradise. Somehow, Greene is now the most influential member of the party’s far-right wing and she has not been shy about dictating her terms of support. In fact, suggests the queen of fantasy conspiracy theories, she practically owns McCarthy. “He’s going to give me a lot of power and a lot of leeway,” Greene told The New York Times last month. “And if he doesn’t, (many in the far right) are going to be very unhappy about it.”
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz suggests McCarthy will have to make significant concessions to prospective supporters on the right fringe of Congress like himself.
“We don’t know how many people will be in this Republican majority, but I can assure you that as of (last week), Kevin McCarthy does not have the 218 votes to become speaker of the House, and we should not give them to him,” Gaetz said on his podcast “Firebrand.”
Declared Texas Rep. Chip Roy: “Until I see a plan with any kind of leadership ... nobody's earned 218 votes.”
Among the terms of transition some are trying to foist on McCarthy: A rule change that would make it easier to oust the speaker. McCarthy is said to be fighting that one.
Donald Trump, last we checked, was still in McCarthy’s corner in the one-horse race for speaker of the House, but Trump’s endorsement might not mean as much as it once did. Several of his endorsed candidates were losers in last week’s election, and Republicans looking for scapegoats are looking in Trump’s direction. The Trump we know, if cornered, will look to shift blame, and McCarthy, who had great sway over the distribution of campaign funding, is a rich target. Stay tuned: This will only get better.
Lost amid the intrigue is McCarthy’s resounding victory in his home district. As of Saturday, with votes still being tabulated, the Bakersfield native had 66.8 percent of the vote against his 20th Congressional District opponent, Democrat Marisa Wood.
McCarthy’s district has some of the most dire poverty in the nation, and its population center, Kern County, has the highest murder rate in California — 13.7 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2020. You have to wonder where those issues rank on his priority list, given the time-consuming challenges associated with his leadership ambitions.