Prodded repeatedly by conservative Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity to name an accomplishment for the Republican-led Congress, McCarthy seized on the Benghazi committee and its investigation into Hillary Clinton's role (or lack thereof) in the handling of the incident during her time as secretary of state.
"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" McCarthy told Hannity. "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."
Remember that John Boehner, the man McCarthy will replace as speaker, has spent the past year — the committee was created in May 2014 — defending it as a search for the truth of what happened Sept. 11, 2012, and not a political witch hunt aimed at dinging Clinton, who remains the likely Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
"Four Americans died at the hands of terrorists nearly 20 months ago, and we are still missing answers, accountability and justice," Boehner said when he created the committee. "It’s time that changed.”
While McCarthy isn't directly contradicting Boehner's past justifications for the Benghazi committee, he quite clearly is painting the committee's work in a political light and tying the committee's work to Clinton's poll slippage. While anyone with a brain would have concluded a while ago that the Benghazi committee wasn't solely about policy, having the man who is about to be the next speaker of the Republican-controlled House say exactly that is not smart. At all.
It hearkens back somewhat to 2012, when the Republican Pennsylvania House majority leader said that a Voter ID law the state legislature had passed would help Mitt Romney carry the state in that year's election. Democrats have long argued that Voter ID is a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise African Americans and other Democratic-leaning voters, and the comment lent plenty credence to that argument.
It's unlikely that McCarthy's slip-up will stop his ascension to the top post. But it does raise two important points that should give Republicans in the House — and outside of it — some doubt about McCarthy.
The first is that being speaker is not sort-of-the-same as being majority leader (McCarthy's current job) or majority whip (the job McCarthy held until last summer). You are not the man standing next to the man or the man standing next to the man standing next to the man. You are the man. What you say gets endlessly parsed by reporters and picked apart by your political rivals — both those in the other party and those in your party. You can't get flustered. You can't blurt. You can't get bullied by a talk show host.
The second is that McCarthy's rise to the top job has been remarkably rapid. As Philip Bump wrote in this space earlier in the week, McCarthy would be the least-experienced speaker of the House in more than 100 years.
Some — including many in the tea party caucus — will say that McCarthy's lack of experience in both Congress (since 2007) and in leadership (since 2009) is a good thing. Less time to be corrupted and co-opted. But McCarthy's comments to Hannity suggest the downside of inexperience. You can't just say stuff — especially stuff that contradicts a long-held talking point of the current speaker and hands Democrats a cudgel to beat your side up with.
Coronations in politics rarely work out. (See Clinton, Hillary.) Competition, it turns out, is often a very good thing. Republicans may well look back at the failure to even consider a serious challenge to McCarthy as a missed opportunity to put the Californian through his paces before giving him the biggest job of his career.