The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP rallies to McCarthy to own the libs. It might be owning itself.

Republicans defended House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) days after audio revealed he blamed former president Donald Trump for the Jan. 6 attack. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has repeatedly reinforced that he is not terribly adept at or interested in leading his party; that he makes political miscalculations; and that his prevailing ideology is not so much “conservatism” or “Trump,” as “whatever it takes to get past this thing.”

Despite this, he seems to have kept the speaker’s gavel within grasp.

Since new evidence emerged showing that McCarthy had said, post-Jan. 6, that he would urge President Donald Trump to resign (which McCarthy falsely and repeatedly denied, both before and after a tape proved him wrong), it has sparked questions about his second bid for the speakership. Increasingly — and despite further revelations showing he was turning on some of his own colleagues after a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol — it appears the Republican Party is rallying behind him.

Trump spoke with McCarthy after the tape was released and reportedly wasn’t upset; he was even happy that McCarthy had demonstrated his subservience by not following through. And even after we learned that McCarthy had said some of his own members were endangering their colleagues and that maybe some of them should be kicked off Twitter, McCarthy reportedly received a standing ovation when he defended himself at a party meeting on Wednesday.

We shouldn’t oversell the impact of Trump’s call or a standing ovation on McCarthy’s difficult speakership math come January (if Republicans, as expected, retake the House). There is clearly some resistance to his ascension, and it will largely depend on how many seats Republicans pick up.

And it’s possible many of these members are responding to McCarthy’s and other Republicans’ claims that he is being persecuted by the left and the press. Whether they want McCarthy to lead them might be another matter entirely, and if recent days indicate anything, he will undoubtedly have more to explain.

But recent years have shown that the perception of persecution is a powerful motivator in the modern GOP, and McCarthy might do well to hitch his wagon to an own-the-libs approach.

Republicans, though, might ask whom they would really be owning by hopping on that wagon. To wit:

  • McCarthy’s first speakership bid was thwarted in part because of a then-gobsmacking gaffe in which he suggested the Benghazi investigation was a success because it hurt — or even that it was designed to hurt — Hillary Clinton.
  • He reportedly told a journalist shortly after the 2020 election that there was no doubt Trump had lost and even that he worried where Trump’s refusal to concede would lead.
  • He faded into the background as his colleagues considered trying to overturn the 2020 election, as The Post’s Paul Kane recently wrote. McCarthy took no public or apparently even private position on the votes to object on Jan. 6. He also claimed his name was left off a list of House Republicans supporting a December lawsuit to overturn the election because of a “clerical error” — even as he had conspicuously declined to endorse the effort publicly just the day before.
  • McCarthy clearly calculated after Jan. 6 that this was it for Trump and Trumpism, floating a censure of Trump and holding Trump responsible for the insurrection; when he was quickly proved wrong, he effectively disowned or disregarded virtually everything he had said on the matter.
  • He claimed to not know what QAnon was (or even how to pronounce it!) at a particularly opportune time — despite having previously dealt with controversies involving it and even weighing in on it publicly.
  • McCarthy also repeatedly and quite literally fled questions about whether he supported the Republican National Committee’s censure of House Jan. 6 committee members Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).

It’s clear why Trump is willing to look past McCarthy’s apostasy: McCarthy has shown a willingness to set aside what he thinks about Jan. 6 and Trump’s voter-fraud claims in the name of supporting Trump. And maybe this is what the GOP needs from a speaker, just on a raw political level: someone fully prepared to go along for the ride — someone willing to do or say anything, even to tell baldfaced lies, as they navigate the thankless job of Republican speaker (or as John A. Boehner once summarized the job, the “mayor of crazytown”).

McCarthy, at least, has a talent for making his colleagues like him; even one of his critics called him “a savant of relationships.” That undoubtedly will help him move past all of this. But he’s also someone who has demonstrated a clear talent for misreading the political moment, a deficit of actual leadership, and a not-exactly-deft touch in extracting himself from binds he got himself in.

The effort to rally behind McCarthy apparently rests on the conceit that the Democrats or the “liberal media” are trying to take him down. But Democrats have plenty of reason to prefer McCarthy for speaker, given the alternatives — both because he’s a pretty standard-issue establishment California Republican, and because of his deficits as a leader.

Whoever would supplant McCarthy would quite likely be more truly in line with Trump — be it the ultimate Trumpian firebrand Jim Jordan, Jim Banks, Steve Scalise or Elise Stefanik (though Stefanik has also demonstrated an ability to evolve politically). We at least know McCarthy was able to summon — even if very fleetingly and with no real impact — some semblance of scruples post-Jan. 6 in a way it’s not clear his colleagues would (if, say, Trump tried to get a GOP Congress to overturn the 2024 election in his favor).

There’s no question McCarthy as speaker would be a wild ride; Republicans are now faced with whether they want to go along with it. And their answer will say plenty about what the party is really about.

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