Who is Kevin McCarthy, US House Speaker with a history of political opportunism and pandering to far right extremists?

Foreign BitsWho is Kevin McCarthy, US House Speaker with a history of political...
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Kevin McCarthy finally got the support of the GOP holdouts after 15 rounds of voting. The group that almost thwarted him was one that he had himself helped grow. Here is his story. Written by Alind Chauhan.

In a historic post-midnight 15th round of voting, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Saturday (January 7) finally became the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives after he successfully persuaded the hard right rebels of his party to support him.

In a five-day-long saga, which was the longest speakership election in 160 years, the California Republican made significant concessions to the GOP’s far right, ultimately garnering enough support to win the top job.

This wasn’t the first time that a bloc of ultra-conservative Republicans had stood in the way of his becoming Speaker. In 2015, hardline Representatives had forced him to drop out of the race for the speakership as they saw him as power-hungry and too mainstream.

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Since then, McCarthy, a moderate in the early years of his political career, has bent over backwards to woo the hard right. He befriended those whom he once despised, supported former President Donald Trump, and even helped him spread lies about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

However, he wasn’t able to win them over until Saturday. Just days before the election, Matt Gaetz, a hard right Republican Representative from Florida and one of McCarthy’s biggest critics, in an op-ed said, “Every single Republican in Congress knows that Kevin does not actually believe anything. He has no ideology.”

The Indian Express looks at the tumultuous relationship between McCarthy and hard right members of the Republican party.

Pandering to the Tea Party Movement

Born in Bakersfield, California, McCarthy started a sandwich shop after high school with $5,000 that he had won in a lottery. His fate turned around when he was elected to the California State Assembly in 2002. Owing to his affable nature, moderate ideology, and the ability to cut deals with the Democrats, McCarthy quickly became popular and, four years later, won the election to the US House of Representatives.

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McCarthy’s rise in Washington DC coincided with the rise of the Tea Party Movement, which was a fiscally conservative political movement that began in 2009 within the Republican Party. It consisted of members who believed in fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets. According to a report in the BBC, the defining feature of the movement was its “vociferous anger at Congress and the White House”. Not only this, its members deeply distrusted the government and media.
Also in Explained |What is Freedom Caucus, the group of Republican lawmakers that blocked McCarthy’s Speakership bid?

Several reports suggest that McCarthy, along with two other rising stars of the GOP, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, saw the opportunity to harness the popularity of the Tea Party Movement and help their party win the House. The New York Times reported that in the run-up to the 2010 midterm elections, the three of them not only projected themselves as an ally of the movement, but also recruited candidates who were anti-establishment and against taxes. The strategy worked, and the Republicans took control of the House. John Boehner was elected Speaker, Cantor became Majority Leader and McCarthy became the House Majority Whip — his job was to gather votes for Boehner and Cantor in order to get legislation passed.

This is when McCarthy had his first skirmish with the conservative flank of the Republican party, which he had himself helped grow. Between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, the House needed to pass a bundle of momentous US federal tax increases and spending cuts, failing which the economy would have been in danger of plunging into chaos. However, the newly-elected Tea Party members and ultra-conservative lawmakers opposed a hike in taxes. Although McCarthy voted against the legislation, like the hardliners in the party, as the House Majority Whip, he managed to corral enough votes for it to pass in the lower chamber, according to The NYT report. The ultra-conservatives did not approve — they saw McCarthy as trying “to have it both ways”, The NYT report said.

McCarthy’s struggle with the growing conservatism within the Republican party worsened in 2015. By this time, the Freedom Caucus had been established — it emerged from the Tea Party Movement and is considered to be the most conservative, far-right caucus of the GOP — and its members played a significant role in the ouster of then-Speaker Boehner, who deeply frustrated the party’s right flank.

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McCarthy was the likeliest candidate to become the next Speaker. According to a Reuters report, he “worked hard to build personal bonds with the restive conservatives who worked to topple Boehner”. But his plans did not work out.

The Freedom Caucus saw him as pro-establishment and not much different from Boehner. Although McCarthy agreed to a bunch of their demands, he still remained deeply unpopular among them.

Meanwhile, the rebellion against him intensified when, just before the election, he made a gaffe on Fox News. In an interview, he suggested that a Republican-appointed special committee on the 2012 Benghazi attacks was intended to undermine Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. McCarthy retracted his statement, but the damage was done. He had to drop out of the race.

In a statement, the Republican leader said, “Over the last week it has become clear to me that our conference is deeply divided and needs to unite behind one leader”.

A close confidant of Trump

McCarthy’s bid to lure the hard right for political gains continued as he ardently supported Trump during his presidency.

According to an analysis in NPR, the Representative from California “knew Trump — and winning over the hard right, of which he is no founding member — was his path to power.”

It was this belief that forced McCarthy to backtrack after he vehemently criticised Trump and held him responsible for the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol.

On the day of the violence, the Republican leader demanded the resignation of the then-President, but when he realised the ultra-conservatives were offended by his statement, he rushed to meet Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Florida, and posed for a photo with him.

Subsequently, McCarthy refused to agree to a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection. Such a commission would have had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, with equal authority to subpoena and interrogate witnesses. In fact, McCarthy dismissed the events of January 6, 2021 as not worth investigating.

The thorny path to success

After the Republicans won a thin majority in the House last year, experts predicted that McCarthy’s critics wouldn’t let him realise his dream easily. Therefore, in the run-up to the Speaker vote, the California Republican held weeks-long negotiations with the hardliners of the GOP.

He promised to give leadership roles to them, agreed to reform the functioning of the House, and accepted “a rule that would allow five lawmakers to call a snap vote at any time to oust the Speaker”. According to a report in The Washington Post, McCarthy even “made peace” with Jim Jordan, a Republican Representative from Ohio and co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, who opposed his 2015 campaign to become the Speaker.

And yet, on December 3, a group of 20 conservative Republicans blocked his ascension — McCarthy couldn’t reach the required 218 vote threshold. For the first time in 100 years, a majority party’s nominee in the House wasn’t able to win the first vote for the position of Speaker.

What followed in the next few days was chaos, as the Republican leader failed over and over again to get enough rebels to turn over their votes to him. Instead of backing him, they showed support for other party members, such as Jordan, Paul Gosar, a far-right Republican from Arizona, and Byron Donalds, a Freedom Caucus member and second-term Republican Representative.

According to The Washington Post, this led McCarthy to make fresh concessions to the hardliners. Notably, these included an offer to “lower from five to one the number of members required to sponsor a resolution to force a vote on ousting the Speaker”, which he had earlier refused to accept. He also agreed to allow “floor votes to institute term limits on members and to enact specific border policy legislation”, the report added.

Finally, on Saturday (January 7), after 15 rounds of voting over the course of five days, McCarthy clawed his way to the speakership. With Republican House members like Eli Crane, Andy Biggs, Bob Good and Matt Rosendale switching their votes to “present”, the candidate prevailed as the final tally showed 216 votes for him — every lawmaker voting “present” lowers the overall tally needed to reach a majority, according to the rules of the House.

However, McCarthy’s victory might have come at a heavy cost. According to an analysis in The NYT, he has essentially agreed to allow far-right members to disrupt the working of the House and “hold him hostage to their demands”.

It further said, “Congress as an entity would struggle to carry out even its most basic duties in the coming two years, such as funding the government, including the military, or avoiding a catastrophic federal debt default.” (India Express)

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