But McCarthy couldn’t close the deal. Despite having no big-name opposition, he failed to gain the support of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus. Perhaps sealing his fate was an ill-advised TV interview in which he suggested that the GOP’s investigation of the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya, was a politically deft effort to damage the looming 2016 presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. McCarthy dropped out, with no obvious front-runner to replace him.
McCarthy might be blowing it again, this time in the aftermath of a domestic tragedy that left a similar number of deaths as Benghazi.
While Democrats have held the House since after the 2018 election, their majority is tenuous. The GOP successfully gerrymandered the chamber a decade ago to make it very difficult for Democrats to hold. And this year’s election — in which Democrats won the presidential race by more than 7 million votes but only narrowly held the House — only reinforced the challenge that lies ahead for them. Given that the GOP still controls much more of the redistricting process ahead and that midterms are usually bad for an incumbent president’s party, McCarthy’s path to the speakership is again evident.
McCarthy’s leadership, though, has left plenty to be desired — and may serve as a cautionary tale for a Republican Party at a crossroads in the aftermath of losing the House, the Senate and the presidency on President Trump’s watch.
McCarthy opted to join an extreme and ill-fated attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the Supreme Court last month.
But something curious happened along the way. McCarthy’s name wasn’t initially on the list of more than 100 House members who supported the extraordinary effort. And when asked about it, he punted twice as if he didn’t want to commit to it. The next day, his and other colleagues’ names were added to the effort. Their explanation: a clerical error. That didn’t explain why McCarthy hadn’t defended the effort the day before.
McCarthy’s posture on Trump’s election challenge has often been confusing. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report tweeted this week that McCarthy had told him weeks after the election that Trump had indeed lost by a clear margin. He said McCarthy even conceded that Trump’s continued challenging of the results could be dangerous and that he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) might have to issue statements acknowledging the result. (McCarthy’s office has declined to comment on this.)
In the end, McCarthy stood back as McConnell issued strong statements about the election being over, essentially foreclosing the idea that the Senate would comply with House Republicans’ attempt to overturn the result.
Lastly has come McCarthy’s moves after the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week. McCarthy, like many Republicans, denounced the violence and did it rather early — including going on television to do so even as the situation was unfolding. Over the last 24 hours or so, word has leaked out that he did even more behind the scenes, including trying (and failing) to goad Trump into offering a more forceful early statement.
But that narrative has been missing from McCarthy’s public comments. To the extent he found Trump culpable for what happened — or at least unresponsive to corrective actions — he still hasn’t been willing to say so publicly. McCarthy has also opposed Trump’s impeachment, despite Trump not heeding his reported advice about an attempted siege of the U.S. government.
All of the above can be explained by raw politics. McCarthy knows how riven the GOP is currently, and minding that divide is crucial for any party leader. There’s plenty to be said for covering your bases and preparing for any eventuality, which McCarthy clearly has.
But it’s also possible to do that with a more deft touch. McCarthy is a student of politics, as evidenced by his fast rise within the congressional GOP. At some point, though, when you straddle the fence on something, neither side of it will be fully convinced that you’re on their side. McCarthy’s fence-straddling has been particularly blatant.
At the very least, the job of a leader is to lead — which might be the biggest deficit McCarthy is demonstrating right now. The House GOP is rudderless in confronting the current situation, unsure of whether to completely stand by Trump in the face of the ugly scenes last week or turn away from his losing message and his fanciful attempt to overturn the results of the election. Fellow GOP leaders like McConnell and the No. 3-ranking House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), have picked a side. But McCarthy still seems to be hedging his bets.
That doesn’t mean he won’t one day be speaker — possibly in two years. It means he’s not blazing his own path to that job and is instead hoping it falls into place. That’s a fraught bet, as 2015 showed.