It has been one month since California representative and former House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was elected by his colleagues to become the 55th speaker of the House in American history, finally fulfilling a lifelong ambition. His effort, however, was not without peril, as it required a historic fifteen ballots and substantial concessions to the rightmost flank of the caucus for a slim Republican majority to deliver McCarthy the gavel.
Nevertheless, the persistent lawmaker has attained the position of power that he has single-mindedly sought for a decade and a half as he rose through the ranks of the GOP, including a failed speakership bid in 2015. The hard part should be over. But Kevin McCarthy now finds himself analogous to the dog that finally catches its own tail. For the first time in his career, he is a man without a mission. What, exactly, is supposed to happen next?
Every House speaker in recent decades has played a distinct role in Washington politics. Newt Gingrich was the roaring voice of unadulterated conservatism, sent by voters to drag Bill Clinton toward the ideological center. Dennis Hastert was a loyal and effective steward of George W. Bush’s legislative priorities. John Boehner was the staunch, yet fair-minded bulwark against Barack Obama’s progressive agenda. Paul Ryan was a bookish policy wonk, hopelessly determined to salvage the federal government’s finances. Nancy Pelosi was a political mastermind of the highest order, capable of whipping the members of her party into line with stunning precision. And Kevin McCarthy is… well, certainly none of the above.
Unlike Ryan, McCarthy is not particularly interested in crafting actual policy; in fact, he finds it rather boring. Journalists report that he is “not known to have a mind for policy” and “would far rather talk about personalities than the tax code.” Though, to be fair, these statements may just be euphemisms for his general lack of intelligence. In a clear parallel to Newt Gingrich’s strikingly specific 1994 Contract with America, McCarthy released his own ‘Commitment to America’ in the leadup to the 2022 midterms. This comprehensive agenda featured such elaborate and precise legislative proposals as “Support our troops,” “Expand U.S. manufacturing,” and “Stop companies from putting politics ahead of people.” Suffice to say, a policy wonk Kevin McCarthy is not.
As opposed to Gingrich and Boehner, McCarthy doesn’t really have any principles aside from an unyielding desperation for power and prestige. The congressman fancied himself a leading proponent of contrasting right-wing allegiances over the years, depending on which is most fashionable at the time. His ideology ranged from small-government, Tea Party-style conservatism to rambunctious Trumpism. More recently, McCarthy even went so far as to forge a close relationship with the House GOP’s resident lunatic, Marjorie Taylor Greene. Far more than any philosophical commitment, McCarthy remains dedicated to climbing political ladders and making whatever backroom deals and ideological contortions are necessary to do so.
And in contrast to Hastert and Pelosi, McCarthy is simply not very good at his job—he cannot even hold his caucus together on his own nomination, let alone any issue of significance. Despite holding House leadership positions for fourteen years, when the time came for McCarthy to ascend to the speakership, an ardent group of twenty or so holdouts were able to block his bid. The standoff lasted until he offered them every conceivable concession, gutting his own authority and humiliating himself in the process.
His grip on the majority does not seem to have strengthened since then. Late last year, McCarthy’s second-in-command, Steve Scalise, laid out eleven top-priority items for the incoming Republican House majority to pass within the first two weeks of January. By the end of the month, they had advanced only six. “Nothing in a majority this narrow is going to be easy,” explains Representative Bill Johnson. Yet this issue was evidently not present during the previous two years of Pelosi’s equally narrow Democratic majority which prolifically passed bill after partisan bill. It appears as though the slimness of the GOP’s majority is not the problem, but in fact a failure of leadership.
So, the question remains: for the next two years at least, who is Kevin McCarthy supposed to be? The answer surprisingly lies in the words of our most performative congressman and one of the speaker’s loudest detractors. In his speech nominating alternative candidate Jim Jordan for the gavel, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz said of McCarthy, “Maybe the right person for the job of speaker of the house isn't someone who has sold shares of themself for more than a decade to get it.”
Selling shares of himself... There is no more fitting description of the man’s political career than that. Nowadays, McCarthy’s original ownership stake in his own persona has been diluted down to the point of virtual nonexistence. The speaker has no more character to call his own than does Walmart or ExxonMobil; he is merely the sum of his owners’ parts. And right at the top of the list of McCarthy holders is the newly empowered Freedom Caucus, pugnacious and ill-tempered as ever, to which he sold his soul and his dignity for a job.
If the caucus’s members wish to do nothing more serious than investigate Hunter Biden’s laptop, berate Anthony Fauci, and serve up symbolic legislation with no chance of becoming law, then that is what Speaker McCarthy will prioritize. The moment he ceases to be faithful—perhaps by compromising with Democrats out of a necessity to raise the debt ceiling, for instance—they will denounce and discard him. As a matter of fact, they will likely do so by utilizing the new single-member threshold for a motion to oust the speaker, granted to them by—who else?—Kevin McCarthy.