Kevin McCarthy gets his dream job, but at a humiliating and suffocating price

He raised money. He registered campaign miles. He walked the corridors in a starched salesman’s suit. But this week, Kevin McCarthy faced the most dangerous challenge to his career when rebellious Republicans unleashed a crushing battle that all but disqualified him as speaker of the House of Representatives and highlighted the deep malice within his party.

McCarthy has been looking for a speaker’s gavel for decades. Every twist and turn of his career—from a young California Assemblyman to a minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives— telegraphed his ambitions. Some found him serious, others prudent and duplicitous. But few believed that a Bakersfield man with a firefighter father and high school mistress wife would be turned down.

He was not abandoned in his quest, but his dream came at a humiliating price that put him in doubt. hold up the party. McCarthy’s power of persuasion, his typical congeniality, was not enough to get him through the first 14 rounds of voting, which revealed as much about the highly tense nature of American politics as about his willingness to compromise principles and make concessions. under the pressure of a small but powerful group destroyers and opponents of elections.

“Kevin is incredibly weak,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who has known McCarthy for many years. “It does him incredible damage. These adversaries [radicals] see him as a democrat. He’s part of the swamp they want to get rid of. Kevin is the last Republican establishment. It’s death throes.”

He was an unenviable man in the spotlight, unable, despite his playful instincts and nocturnal maneuvers, to stop the uprising against him until early Saturday morning when he received 216 votes that redeemed him. It was dramatic American theater that went off script and became embarrassing and then tiresome as each ballot went on, and McCarthy walked down the hall smiling but shrinking until one last, pulse-pounding argument and arm-twisting forced get it out of control. .

McCarthy went to the speaker’s chair, smiled, picked up a hammer and hit it twice.

“Now the hard work begins,” he said.

Congressman put most of his the future belongs to Donald Trump. But as the former president faces a wave of legal troubles and becomes less powerful among radical Republicans determined to thwart the act of government, McCarthy is in danger. Those who tried to orchestrate his downfall, including Lauren Bobert (R-Colorado) and Matt Goetz (R-Fla.), never saw McCarthy, the expert on House procedures and rules, the agent of gradual change they wanted. bring damage. the Biden administration and turn the work of Congress.

“The Republican Civil War is in full swing. The MAGA caucus has taken the speaker’s race hostage, placing the nation at a dangerous juncture in American history,” the anti-Trump Lincoln Project said in a statement after the first day of voting on Tuesday. “This is a direct consequence of what happened on January 6th and the rise of a post hoc, post conservative and post Republican nihilistic MAGA caucus.”

McCarthy has long been more of an intermediary than a leader, more of a strategist than a visionary. These traits helped him in his distortions in defending Trump even after there are 6 uprisings when many moderate Republicans saw an opportunity to disown the former president. He realized that Trump and his supporters were on their way to becoming a speaker. But the congressman’s chameleon qualities made him vulnerable to hardliners who demanded loyalty not to convention and ideological flexibility, but to revolution.

His attempts to appease them – moderates often accused McCarthy of pandering to hardliners – left him a leader without conviction, until suddenly the man Trump called “my Kevin” was in danger. This pressure became more personal and pronounced as the ballot loss grew, with Gatz calling McCarthy a “squatter” for moving into the Speaker’s office too early. Gatz accused McCarthy of resorting to “an exercise in vanity” by maintaining his position as speaker. But in the end, under intense pressure from fellow Republicans, Getz relented and did not oppose the man he had long vilified.

“While he’s very good at being really personable, you can’t be everything to everyone all the time,” said Beth Miller, a Sacramento-based Republican strategist who has known McCarthy since the 1990s. “It was difficult for him to go through it. He wants to move things forward, to lead people. But you can’t do this for everyone. You will have detractors.”

“Everything is not easy for me,” McCarthy, 57, once told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I need to work harder on everything.”

What unfolded this week under the dome of the Capitol was a caustic blow to a politician whose ascent was swift. He became the Republican leader in his freshman year when he was elected to the California Assembly in 2002. He entered Congress in 2006 and was soon named one of the Young Shooters along with Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Paul D. Ryan (R-). – Wisconsin). They promised to breathe new life into the Republican Party and quickly tried to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency.

Over the years that he rose in the House of Representatives, McCarthy did not sponsor any major legislation, preferring instead to attack Democratic politics without offering new alternatives to an increasingly polarized nation. As Minority Leader last year, he delivered a cool and unimaginative “Commitment to America” ​​promise that should have echoed but lacked the guts of former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1994 contract with America.

McCarthy’s skills have been focused on fundraising — he’s raised more than $100 million for the party since 2016 — and on his deep knowledge of constituencies across the country. He scouted candidates, memorized names, bought meals, traveled tens of thousands of miles, and felt as at ease with the rich as he walked the streets of Bakersfield and dined at Luigi’s. He urged his fellow legislators to read Plato’s Republic, Harvard Business Review, and People magazine regularly.

His tenacity and buoyancy drew colleagues to him and disarmed enemies, including Trump supporter Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who stood on the floor of the House on Tuesday and nominated McCarthy for speaker.

The congressman’s charm convinced 200 members of the Republican House. But for days they did little to influence the 20 or so ultra-conservatives whose power has risen since November mid-term elections gave Republicans a narrower majority than expected. As a result, McCarthy was left with fewer moderates to rely on. He gave in to a number of demands from the hardliners, including that the Speaker could be removed any time an early vote was called. The concessions, which also dealt with how committees are elected and how spending bills are voted on, significantly undermine the power of the position he would hold. But by Friday evening, the number of his detractors was reduced to six.

He has previously received support Marjorie Taylor Green (GA), and on Wednesday, Trump urged opponents to support McCarthy “who will do a good job and maybe even a GREAT JOB.” But much of the party’s radical wing was oblivious to Trump and viewed McCarthy as the heir to the establishment they wanted to destroy, leaving a congressman who is not a gifted public speaker with the humiliating task of collecting votes backstage and in the Chamber of the House.

McCarthy was similarly stung in 2015 when he was expected to replace John Boehner (R-Ohio), who was facing an ultraconservative uprising. Those same elements turned against McCarthy, who shocked the party by withdrawing from the speaker’s race rather than face a ignominious downfall. It was an omen of the growing strength of the far right and how McCarthy, who fielded the most diverse House slate in Republican history last year, failed to tame it.

Some have suggested that this time McCarthy, accustomed to behind-the-scenes negotiations, foresaw a disorderly mutiny and devised a strategy to quell it.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Kevin didn’t know where this was going the night before the vote and already had a couple of contingencies,” said Fabian Nunez, a Democrat and former Speaker of the California Assembly whose term of office echoes McCarthy’s. “If you watch it on TV, he usually doesn’t do what Kevin does. He doesn’t talk to anyone. If he doesn’t speak, he waits. He is waiting for the right moment to start this conversation. . . I don’t think he got distracted. I don’t think he is humiliated. He’s waiting for things to play out.”

McCarthy’s political narrative goes back to when he was a young owner of a small sandwich shop. He often liked to tell people how this experience taught him the dangers of big government and bureaucracy. He echoed those sentiments as an assemblyman and then congressman, campaigning through Bakersville’s pumping stations and farm fields, listening to Merle Haggard, and winning election after election. He became a rising national Republican leader from a liberal state.

“He had a great quality,” said Jim Brulte, a former state senator and former chairman of the California Republican Party, of McCarthy. “Everyone liked Kevin. He understands that politics is a team sport, a game of addition, not subtraction. Too many Republicans want to play subtraction.”

David Bynum, a Bakersfield lawyer and McCarthy’s former intern, said that McCarthy “worked extremely hard to achieve what he set out to achieve. He made many sacrifices. He saw people say terrible things about him. He went through the line, slept on the couch, traveled the country. When people say that he deserved this job – in politics you spend hours on other people. you work for your members. He did all these things.”

Bynum added: “Ultimately, he is an optimistic, naturally happy, driven guy. He’s not going to spend a lot of time licking his wounds.”

Others saw McCarthy as an opportunist, especially in his often maddening and chaotic relationship with Trump. The former president called McCarthy a “pussy” with an “inferiority complex”. McCarthy backed Trump – a move his critics likened to selling his soul – after Jan. 6 riot, believing that the former president and his supporters would help the Republicans reclaim the House of Representatives and push McCarthy for Speaker. This gambit has left Republicans barely in control of the House of Representatives, and McCarthy is facing an uprising of hardliners who could take his speakership hostage in the coming months.

“When a party loses its ideological foothold,” Madrid said, “everything becomes personal. This is what Kevin faces. . . Now it’s too populist. It’s all about performative politics, like Goetz and Bobert.”

McCarthy likes to point to a painting in his office of George Washington crossing the Delaware. It is a scene of coldness, patience and common sacrifice. The congressman said it represented the American spirit: “We need you together in the boat. We all need to row in the same direction. … We will participate in battles in which people will be against us.”

These battles have flared up with a vengeance, with many rowers moving in the other direction.