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Kevin McCarthy has no idea what to do

Mitch McConnell has at least picked a side in the brewing internecine GOP conflict. McCarthy, as usual, just hopes it goes away.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) outside the White House in May. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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Say what you will about Sen. Mitch McConnell, but when it comes to the Jan. 6 insurrection, he has staked out a position that is decidedly not where the Republican Party as a whole is right now.

As we wrote earlier Wednesday, McConnell (R-Ky.) has placed himself on something of an island:

A strong majority of Republicans … wrongly believe Donald Trump somehow won the 2020 election. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday … showed 65 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters say too much attention has been paid to Jan. 6. And 8 in 10 said they had little or no confidence that the Jan. 6 committee’s investigation would be fair and reasonable.
That’s decidedly not where McConnell is. He has made a point to lend the committee legitimacy, saying that “what they are seeking to find out is something the public needs to know.” He also reinforced in his comments Tuesday that Joe Biden’s win was legitimately certified and that Jan. 6 was indeed a violent “insurrection” — something with which 1 in 5 Republicans agree.

McConnell on Tuesday also sharply criticized the Republican National Committee for censuring two GOP House members who serve on the Jan. 6 committee, Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.).

Exactly why McConnell — a pragmatic politician, if there ever was one — has done this is a very valid question. But there’s little disputing that the easy political course would be to attack the Jan. 6 committee, cast doubt on the severity of the attack that day and play footsie with the election-truthers like plenty of others have.

To be clear, McConnell voted against President Donald Trump’s impeachment (on a technicality) and fought the creation of a bipartisan Jan. 6 commission. But he has also provided perhaps the most significant counterpoint to his party’s attempts to downplay and revise the history of Jan. 6. He also staked out a clear position on Trump’s culpability for Jan. 6 and hasn’t backed off it — unlike his House counterpart, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

McCarthy, indeed, presents another matter entirely.

McCarthy’s attempt to guide his party’s admittedly more unwieldy House contingent through the Trump era has long been torturous, but this week has really driven it home.

While a bevy of Republicans has spoken out against the RNC censure resolution, McCarthy on Tuesday quite literally fled questions about whether he agreed with it — and on multiple occasions. He defended the “legitimate political discourse” language the censures used, but he declined to say whether he supported the censures.

He got another bite at the apple on Wednesday — after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) helpfully noted his evasiveness — and this time he at least stood still. But he did not take a stand.

Asked by reporters about the matter, he merely said, “The RNC put out their resolution; I think they have a right to do their resolution and what they wanted.”

He also danced around it in an NBC News interview:

Asked if he agreed with the decision to censure Cheney, of Wyoming, and Kinzinger, of Illinois, the lone Republican lawmakers on the Jan. 6 panel, McCarthy said: “I think there’s a reason why Adam is not running again. I think there’s a reason why at the end of the day, Liz would have a hard time winning here if she runs, and I don’t think she runs.”

Neither of these responses say anything about whether McCarthy actually agreed with the censures from a moral or principled standpoint. They merely note that the two Republicans have endangered themselves politically by serving on the Jan. 6 committee and that the RNC has a technical right to do this. Both are true; they’re just very much beside the point.

McCarthy did at least tell NBC that he agreed with McConnell that Jan. 6 was a “violent insurrection.” That’s something other Republicans have fought against — including most notably Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has rather rapidly shifted from calling it a “terrorist attack” 35 days ago to now saying it wasn’t even an insurrection.

But apart from that, McCarthy is laser-focused on not getting nailed down on virtually any of this stuff. He recognizes, rightly, that doing so is a recipe for disaster, either way.

The conservative House Freedom Caucus distrusts the establishment-oriented California Republican, even thwarting his last bid to become speaker. He has also got to deal with the members of his party who are rightly upset about what transpired Jan. 6 and perhaps might even worry about what it means for democracy — even if they might not broadcast it as publicly.

So he deputized a top House Republican to negotiate a bipartisan 9/11-style commission and then, after a deal was reached, pulled the rug out from underneath it. He suggested a censure of Trump and said Trump was responsible for not calling off the mob quickly enough on Jan. 6, before dropping that argument like a bad habit. And now he has dragged his feet on punishing Cheney and Kinzinger, allowing the RNC to do that dirty work last week. Plus, he still won’t say whether it was the right thing to do.

It’s surely a strategy of necessity more than anything. McCarthy knows he’s doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn’t. Attempting to lead much of anything in today’s GOP is a fool’s errand, so you might as well be along for the ride and hope you can hold on long enough to grab hold of some power and get some things done.

But are the grass roots, who RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said are strongly behind the censures, going to get behind a guy who won’t even endorse that decision? At some point, you might want to at least try to guide the conversation — if that’s even possible.

McConnell is at least trying to do so. McCarthy is just along for the ride.