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Opinion The Insiders: Republicans fret over McCarthy’s skills

Then-House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) (center) speaks as Speaker John A. Boehner (R) and then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (L) listen on Jan. 14, 2014. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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In an appearance with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is hoping to be the next speaker of the House, talked about the Benghazi Select Committee’s investigation into Hillary Clinton.  In explaining what he thinks Republicans have accomplished in Congress, McCarthy said, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.  Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.” Gasp! Talk about giving your opponents a gift. McCarthy later tried to clarify his comments, as did many other Republicans — including Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — reiterating that the select committee was launched to find the truth about what happened in Benghazi and to get to the bottom of who knew what when — not for any political reason.

McCarthy misspoke on Hannity.  But the incident is bad news for Republicans, because it demonstrates that the man who is likely about to become speaker isn’t a great speaker. My friend Dana Milbank at The Washington Post was on to something when he said, “McCarthy’s difficulties were particularly alarming … because he’s about to enter a very public glare in which his every word, or attempted word, will be analyzed.” Actually, according to insiders, Milbank didn’t do McCarthy’s speaking problem justice.  Capitol Hill Republicans are falling in line, but the hand-wringing over McCarthy’s ability to say the wrong thing is audible. There will be more anxiety over McCarthy’s role as the face of the GOP on the Sunday shows than there was when President George W. Bush spoke on live TV during his presidency, and that’s saying something.

Why would Republicans select a speaker who is a poor communicator? Isn’t being effective on TV a core requirement of the job? I’m reminded that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is a walking gaffe machine, but the double standard that holds Republicans to account while letting Democrats skate is real. McCarthy can’t expect any of the passes the media routinely grants to Pelosi and other Democrats when they say idiotic things.

But putting aside his difficulties when speaking off the cuff, McCarthy has only been in the House for eight years, so what is the magic that has propelled him to the top so quickly? Well, no one I talk to really knows. Mostly, I just hear that he is energetic and personally popular. No one looks you in the eye and cites deep policy expertise, intellectual creativity or gifted communication abilities among his attributes.

Republicans are in for some tense times ahead. Thinking back on the George W. Bush presidency and his verbal limitations, I remember that my daughter was just a toddler during much of his presidency and I noticed that I developed the same sense of fear watching the president speak on live TV as I did as when I watched my daughter learn to walk and run. I knew both were precarious, dangerous situations and that her walking and him talking could end in total disaster any second. Well, it sounds like those days of terror might be back — only worse.

To get ready for Speaker McCarthy, GOP leaders will need to brush off their talking points about how it is somehow appealing that McCarthy can be inarticulate and sometimes doesn’t explain himself well or concisely express the sentiments of the party and the strategy of the majority in Congress.  Maybe middle America will find a certain honesty and authenticity to how plainspoken McCarthy is. Yeah right.

This is serious. McCarthy’s words matter in his current leadership position in the House and will matter even more if he is elected as speaker. He needs to raise his game, collect his thoughts, be very sure-footed and display some measured, informed and thoughtful leadership. In the weeks ahead, he will be called on to explain his worldview and you can bet our allies and our enemies will be watching.  Republicans need to be sure we are introducing a new serious actor onto a very troubled world stage. Now is not a good time for verbal bumbling or embarrassing ignorance.