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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

November 19: Why Kevin McCarthy Does What He Does

Some political observers seem baffled by the behavior of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. I’m not, and wrote about it at New York, just before McCarthy’s demagogic eight-hour speech opposing Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation.

In every respect, the House GOP fight against the censure of Paul Gosar for posting a tweet with an anime video depicting him murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was embarrassing. Republicans were defending a clearly dangerous and contemptible act while identifying themselves with a chronically dangerous and contemptible extremist politician. Beyond that, though, rallying around Gosar interrupted their efforts to make this week’s Beltway coverage revolve around the follies of the opposition Democrats. As Politico Playbook observed: “This was supposed to be a ‘Dems in Disarray’ week, but thanks to Rep. PAUL GOSAR (R-Ariz.), it turned into a ‘McCarthy Defends …’ week.

So why didn’t House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy toss Gosar onto the dustbin of political history where he belongs, or at least keep his troops from treating him like a martyr? I can’t see into McCarthy’s mind or soul, of course, but it’s reasonably clear he has adopted a policy of pas d’ennemis a droit (“no enemies to the right,” an inversion of the old Popular Front slogan “no enemies to the left,” deployed to prevent criticism of communists). And he did so because he does not want to go the way of his distinguished former colleagues in the House Republican leadership, Eric Cantor and John Boehner.

Cantor, you may recall, was the brilliant young Virginia congressman who was in top leadership spots (first as House Minority Whip then as House Majority Leader) from 2009 until 2014. That last year, he came crashing to earth in a primary loss to an obscure economics professor named Dave Brat, who demonized Cantor’s friendly attitude toward a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. More generally, Cantor painted a big bull’s-eye on his back by identifying himself with the famous “Growth and Opportunity Project” — better known as the “2012 GOP autopsy report” — that argued the Republican Party was doomed if it did not expand its base by attracting minority voters, with comprehensive immigration reform being a sine qua non. Brat’s nativist-tinged campaign found its most avid cheerleader in Ann Coulter, and got an assist from a former Michele Bachmann staffer named Stephen Miller. It was, arguably, the first MAGA campaign ever. And it sent shock waves through Washington that have yet to subside completely.

Who succeeded Cantor as House Majority Leader? Kevin McCarthy, of course. You think he remembers Cantor’s demise pretty well? I do. But there’s more.

Soon thereafter, the only House Republican who outranked the prelapsarian Cantor, Speaker John Boehner, crashed and burned as well, not in a primary, but by losing an internal party struggle with the House Freedom Caucus, which viewed the convivial wine-and-cigarettes Ohioan as insufficiently combative toward the hated Democrats and their especially hated president Barack Obama. When Kevin McCarthy sought to succeed Boehner, he was blocked by the HFC, which did not consider him ideologically reliable and preferred (and secured) Paul Ryan for the gig. In 2019, McCarthy finally did gain the top leadership spot and has been very solicitous toward the right wing of his conference ever since.

With the Speaker’s gavel in sight — he probably goes to sleep at night envisioning the moment he takes it away from his least-favorite colleague, fellow-Californian Nancy Pelosi — McCarthy isn’t going to blow it now by upsetting Gosar and his Freedom Caucus friends Andy Biggs, Lauren Boebert, Andrew Clyde, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and … the list keeps growing. Periodic bad publicity about his tolerance of scary people saying and doing scary things is a small price to pay for ensuring there is no GOP leadership coup in 2023 if history repeats itself and the president’s party loses quite a few House seats. After all, if McCarthy isn’t careful, he could be brushed aside by a fresh new face aspiring to the Speakership: Donald J. Trump.

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