I've had only one opportunity in the past year to gauge Kevin McCarthy's reaction to his nickname, bestowed on him by a man for whom nicknames generally reflect some degree of disdain. At first sniff, Donald Trump's "My Kevin" pet name for the House majority leader would seem to reflect a certain affection. But McCarthy's visible shudder when I asked him about the alias last August bespeaks a different sort of relationship. Something more akin to pet and master.
Nobody wants that sort of perception following him around. Trump might like the idea of fawning subservience across all branches of government, but in his leadership role McCarthy needs to project independence.
But I see no light between the president and the majority leader. None. Trump has alienated allies, embraced despots and established new lows for candor and McCarthy has either voiced support or said nothing at all. And, for the most part, he's gotten a pass on it.
No passes this time. Trump has ordered that children be separated from their detained, border-crossing parents and placed in encampments. The policy has drawn condemnation from every corner of the U.S. political world, from the five living first ladies to elected members of his own party; from conservative commentators like Bill O'Reilly and Hugh Hewitt (a fervent supporter of the president who calls this Trump's "Katrina") to a bipartisan group of 75 former U.S. attorneys.
Where does McCarthy stand? Beats me. My repeated efforts to get a statement on the issue from his congressional office whiffed.
McCarthy should oppose this despicably heartless and unproductive policy for obvious humanitarian reasons. Pulling a frightened, crying child from his mother's arms — it sounds melodramatic, but it's happening — isn't just cruel, it reveals a leadership mindset that hearkens to times and places in human history we would prefer to forget — but must remember. We should want no part of it, and McCarthy, a decent family man, should want no part of it either.
Apart from ethical considerations — as if any other consideration really matters — McCarthy should oppose this disastrous policy on the basis of political pragmatism: It's a loser.
McCarthy's job description has a lot of bulleted duties, but the first three are obvious and non-negotiable. 1. Keep the House majority. 2. Keep the House majority. 3. Keep the House majority. McCarthy is very good at this, too: Read the polls and the district tea leaves, determine where to best allot financial and other resources, coach up your vulnerable incumbents and promising challengers, and try not to step in anything bad.
McCarthy should be concerned on that last count. Hewitt is correct: We'll be seeing images of caged toddlers in political ads any day now, if they're not out already, and Trump has facilitated those photo ops with this self-inflicted crisis.
We're seeing some of the evidence already here in McCarthy country: Rep. David Valado, whose 21st Congressional District borders McCarthy's 23rd on the north, issued a statement about the child-separation activity Monday: "While we must work towards a solution that reduces the occurrence of illegal border crossings," he wrote in an emailed statement, "it is unacceptable to separate young children from their parents."
That didn't stop his Democratic challenger, T.J. Cox, from chiming in Tuesday: "David Valadao and House Republicans have forgotten about our ethical obligations. They are sitting on the sidelines, allowing this administration to use children as a bargaining chip to build Trump’s wall.” Imagine the rhetoric rising from contested districts where the Republican incumbent has, unlike Valadao, endorsed the separation policy.
McCarthy could lead House Republicans away from this no-win morass by voicing reservations about, if not outright opposition to, Trump's separation policy, thereby giving each of them space to do the same if they choose. He could help his party reclaim a piece of the high ground by defending the basic human dignity of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet today.
"My Kevin" would never do such a thing, though. Which is another reason House Majority Leader McCarthy should do it.