Simply put, McCarthy can’t guarantee success, in part because party power is not what it used to be on Capitol Hill, especially for the GOP.
Promises of special projects in the home district — a bridge here, a road there — no longer exist as an enticement. Pledges of fundraising help often draw little interest in the age of super PACs, which can deliver huge sums to a favored campaign on a moment’s notice. Personal pleas for fealty to party leaders fall on deaf ears among a new generation of conservatives who often prefer to be more closely allied with external movement leaders than with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
All these complicating factors were on full display this week as more than 60 Republicans opposed the House leaders, joining Democrats to defeat a five-year farm bill. The bill was crafted to address the conservative ethos that now controls the caucus. It cut food-stamp programs and eliminated some cash payments to farmers. But for most of those Republicans, it wasn’t conservative enough, and they were willing to let it die.
This has been a recurring theme during Boehner’s tenure atop the always-raucous House, but after Thursday’s failure, the stakes are higher.
Democrats took it to mean that pending immigration legislation would be more difficult to pass. Republicans agreed but suggested that was because they were double-crossed on the farm bill by Democrats who had pledged to provide enough votes to pass it but then reneged. Republican leaders now question whether they trust Democrats at all.
Partisan trust issues aside, the big battles ahead — from immigration to raising the federal debt ceiling — will once again test Boehner’s leadership team and put the spotlight on McCarthy’s whip operation as it tries to wrangle enough GOP votes to give House Republicans some leverage in those big fights.
McCarthy came to the whip’s job in January 2011 with as little experience as anyone who ever served in the post. He had been in the House for just two terms and had never been in the majority, not in Washington nor during his brief stint in the California legislature. His advertised skill set had been that of a political tactician, helping recruit many of the 87 Republicans who swept into office in the 2010 midterm elections and vaulted the GOP into the majority.
McCarthy was a key part of Boehner’s pledge to run the House in a less heavy-handed way than Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did when she was speaker from 2007 through 2010, and differently than former representative Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who adopted “the Hammer” as a nickname and a political persona during his eight years as majority whip.