Kudos to Kevin McCarthy. For his ultimate success on 7 January, the new speaker of the US House of Representatives may deserve popular praise. Yet, the 57-year-old Mr McCarthy’s success is not good news for the new US Congress. Why, what is wrong with Mr McCarthy? He is a confirmed political opportunist, a heartless backer of the hard right, a distrusted demagogue and a reviled Republican. Not the sort a divided America needs now.
Mr McCarthy’s political opportunism has been a roadblock to his speakership for long. Finally, after much drama, he managed to get his party holdouts back him. The high drama went on for five days and through 15 rounds of voting, with the final lap stretching well into the wee hours. Frustrating him was a caucus of 20 hard-right Republicans, a coterie he had once cultivated. Mr McCarthy’s story is the story of divisive American politics. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2023/01/06/house-speaker-vote-live-coverage-kevin-mccarthy/
Pride May End in Despair
Mr McCarthy had to battle divisive forces right in his own political backyard to realise his long-nurtured ambition. The fact he could convince the hard Republican rebels at last to back him is a clear reflection of the poison that has seeped into the hearts of American politics and democracy. After five suspense-filled days of political skulduggery, he might have felt proud over his election being the longest speaker poll in 160 years, since 1859. https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-house-speaker-fight-enters-fourth-day-amid-antebellum-era-dysfunction-2023-01-06/
This pride may end in despair now for the Republican from California. Despite major concessions to his party’s far right, made to coax them to support his speakership, partisan Republicans are sure to hold him hostage. Particularly, when it comes to getting important bills through. This implies Mr McCarthy’s speakership has come at a huge cost – to himself, to his Party, to the House and to America. Is this cost worth it? Does Mr McCarthy realise that the cost has been huge?
Blinded by Bold Ambitions
Mr McCarthy could have easily figured out the cost of his speakership beforehand. This wasn’t the first time ultra-right Republicans erected barricades on his road to speakership. His prior experience in 2015 should have warned him on how much the ultra-conservative and the farthest-right Freedom Caucus within his party believes in arm-twisting and extorting concessions. His Trumpian experience too was not far behind.
His flings with Trumpism reveals the opportunistic streak in Mr McCarthy. In quest of power, the once-moderate Republican began pleasing the ultra-conservative Right. He began loving the company of those he had once run down. Stretching opportunism, he backed Mr Trump in propagating latter’s lies on stolen election and voter fraud. Blinded by ambitions, Mr McCarthy allowed himself to be squeezed by his Republican allies. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/01/kevinmccarthy-trump-house-speaker-congress/672630/
A Sides-Changing Politician
Squeezed they did, until the eleventh hour. The polarising Republican coterie went around town tomtomming Mr McCarthy had no ideology. In a way, the coterie was right. Mr McCarthy kickstarted his political career as a Democrat, with his election to the California State Assembly in 2002 and then to the House in 2006. Proving the coterie right, Mr McCarthy has been a diehard Mr Trump-adoring Republican since 2009.
As a Republican too, Mr McCarthy has been a sides-changing politician. In 2012-13, the House had to approve federal tax rises and spending cuts needed to save the economy. The coterie opposed these and a shifty Mr McCarthy too voted against the proposals. Yet, as the House Majority Whip, he went on to mobilise votes to ensure the proposals sailed through the lower chamber. The coterie viewed Mr McCarthy’s action as untrustworthy. https://kevinmccarthy.house.gov/about
Deep Opportunistic Streak
As the trust deficit between the coterie and Mr McCarthy widened, the Freedom Caucus began pushing out House speakers who annoyed them. The year was 2015. Despite his many overtures, Mr McCarthy was viewed by the Caucus as an antagonist of their anti-establishment ideology. Mr McCarthy’s subsequent words, many of them uttered without much thought, went on to widen the rift between the two.
Meanwhile, in pursuit of power, Mr McCarthy the Opportunist oscillated between backing Mr Trump and slamming him. One day he attacked Mr Trump for the Capitol Hill riot and on another day he pandered to his far-right. Why, Mr McCarthy even stooped low to the extent of not agreeing for investigations into the riot. This swinging, a veritable proof of his deep opportunistic streak, ensured he remained in the political basement for long. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/01/13/mccarthy-trumpresponsibility-capitol-riot-458975
Offered New Concessions
Not the one to give up, Mr McCarthy remained in contest for speakership of the House. Again and again, the Caucus erected barricades in his election. This was despite Mr McCarthy bending backwards, granting concessions and striking semblances of truce with the Caucus. At the end, Mr McCarthy, the dominant party’s nominee, came a cropper and his hopes of becoming the House speaker continued to remain nebulous and non-starters.
With repeated failures behind him, Mr McCarthy offered new concessions to the Caucus. One , he consented to permit a single lawmaker, reduced from five, to force a snap vote to oust the speaker. This was Mr McCarthy signing his own death warrant in advance. Two, he committed to give the Caucus approval over a third of the seats on the Rules Committee, which decides what legislation reaches the House floor and how it is discussed and debated.
Irresistible Urge for Hara-kiri
Three, he okayed opening government spending bills to a no holds-barred debate wherein any lawmaker can force votes on proposed changes. These concessions prove an opportunistic Mr McCarthy did not mind sacrificing his long-held beliefs to bag the coveted job. Why is the job so important? The House speaker is second in line for the presidency. Minus the speaker, neither legislations can be made nor new members can be sworn in. https://nypost.com/2023/01/05/mccarthy-agrees-to concessions-as-house-is-poised-for-third-day-of-voting/
Reason why Mr McCarthy has been dead serious to become the House speaker. At the end of it, is this seriousness an irresistible urge to do a hara-kiri? Mr McCarthy made such compromises that he has inflicted deep cuts on his speaker’s chair, his own role and powers. Now on, the speaker’s power will shrink, the Republican control will thin, the House will turn too unruly and the disruptive far right will try to call the shots much of the time.
Opportunism has won Mr McCarthy his speakership. The cost he has paid is huge, however. One, the House is now more vulnerable to disruptions by the far right. Two, Mr McCarthy will be held hostage, quite often, by the Caucus. Three, the searing fight has ended in a wafer-thin majority. Four, for the next couple of years, the Congress will remain hobbled, unable to do its basic duties. Sure, it is a Pyrrhic victory for Mr McCarthy.