Saturday, April 23, 2022

Should We Care What Kevin McCarthy Thinks?

David Super

      Recent revelations, including that Kevin McCarthy told his party’s leadership that he was going to tell former President Trump to resign, have produced a public outpouring of (somewhat confused) commentary on the Center-Left and, no doubt, rather different forms of consternation in private within the establishment Right and the MAGA Right.  This will no doubt feed the already active debate about whether, if Republicans retake the House in November, Rep. McCarthy will be the next speaker.  That discussion, in turn, assumes that the private views of the House speaker are very important. 

     This seems a good time, therefore, to consider how true that assumption might be.  Unquestionably, some speakers have been immensely powerful and have had sweeping discretion to shape public policy as they saw fit.  Speaker Sam Rayburn was legendary; Speakers Tip O’Neill and Newt Gingrich, too, wielded enormous authority in their heydays.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also been spectacularly effective in impressing her personal priorities on public policy.  (Her political brilliance may have been even more apparent when she was House Minority Leader.)  But will the next speaker, particularly if a Republican, have the same kind of sweeping discretion?

     The commotion about the McCarthy tapes is consistent with the current trend of personalizing politics despite abundant evidence that ideology, rather than personality, is the overwhelming driving force in our politics to a degree rarely seen before.  For example, all but three Republican senators voted against confirming Judge Jackson despite a paucity of coherent rationales.  This exertion was rather remarkable given the minimal likelihood that Judge Jackson, or anyone else whom President Biden might nominate, would cast the decisive vote on any important case or even receive particularly important opinion assignments on consensus cases.  (To complete the absurdity, senators used the vote is signal their allegiance to the “sane” faction within the Party by opting for a nonsensical reason – that she would not oppose Court-packing schemes over which she would have no say as a justice – or to the QAnon faction – by insisting that her sentencing of sex offenders, while in line with that of Republican-appointed judges, somehow made her part of a pedophilic cabal.) 

     As with Democratic Supreme Court nominees, one could argue that personal views the next Republican speaker of the House (or, indeed, the next representative from California’s 22d District) matter little:  the strength of their enthusiasm for the right-wing agenda seems unlikely to be the main factor limiting how far that agenda advances.  Moreover, a new speaker’s recognition of the danger of extremists in the Party matters little if they have repeatedly demonstrated, as Rep. McCarthy has, a willingness to look the other way to advance their personal ambition and the dominance of their Party.  This is, of course, the same Rep. McCarthy who previously said he believed Russian President “Putin pays” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Donald Trump and never raised a finger against either.  Indeed, one could take his statements in the latest tapes as an effort to persuade his caucus that concerns about the insurrection were being raised internally and hence that they need not go public with statements against the President or votes for impeachment. 

     I would not expect a Speaker McCarthy to exercise any moderating influence on what legislation he brings to the floor.  He will be an exceptionally weak speaker, perhaps almost comparable to Dennis Hastert, who was largely a figurehead.  If anything, because these revelations will cause many MAGA Members to presume any restraint he might exercise is a betrayal, he may have to be more unstinting in advancing the far-right agenda.  Thus, the major impact of this week’s revelations may not be to change who becomes speaker but rather to make the already pliable Rep. McCarthy even weaker and more beholden to the far right should he ascend. 

     Congressional leaders’ most important actions (like those of Supreme Court justices) are largely hidden from the public, but these actions are well-known by other Members.  Even less than a subcommittee chair, who can manipulate legislative drafting in ways other Members are unlikely to catch, speakers are constantly accountable to their caucuses and to the well-resourced outside advocacy groups that guide their Members.  Speakers thus have very little ideological discretion.  Indeed, without any coherent, visible moderate or mainstream faction in his party to speak of, he will lack the power some prior speakers had to assign legislation to committees ruled by their ideological allies. 

     Speakers in both parties, however, must arbitrate disputes within their caucuses between true believers who want to fight every battle and Members from marginal districts who want to lighten the load of unpopular votes they must explain to their constituents.  A speaker having credibility with her or his more extreme Members can better-protect their marginal ones.  Speaker Newt Gingrich and de facto Speaker Tom DeLay largely had that credibility, as did Speaker Nancy Pelosi for most of her terms.  Speaker John Boehner did not, and the repeated far-right attacks on his authority forced him to expose his Members to numerous unnecessarily embarrassing votes, both adopting extreme right-wing positions that could never become law and voting for measures negotiated with Democrats when far-right Republicans withheld their votes.  Speaker Paul Ryan was highly credible with his “’wingers” but lost the majority in 2018 when he could not reverse the undisciplined habits they had acquired under Speaker Boehner. 

     A Speaker Kevin McCarthy will be very much in the mold of Speaker Boehner, allowing pretty much anything his far-right Members support to reach the House floor.  And whatever his private views, he has proven he will not restrain any MAGA president elected in 2024.  This could undermine the longevity of any Republican House majority.   

     If the current revelations, or others that follow, sink Rep. McCarthy’s bid to be speaker, the result is harder to predict.  The most likely successor as leader of House Republicans would be Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana.  Rep. Scalise was inserted into the leadership to represent far-right Members, but his several years there have certainly tarnished him in those Members’ eyes.  He likely would have a bit more credibility reining in the most politically destructive impulses of his ‘wingers than Speaker Boehner or Leader McCarthy, but not by a lot.  He, too, has given us no reason to believe he would restrain a MAGA president’s extreme actions; indeed, he still denies the legitimacy of President Biden’s win. 

     Third in command currently is upstate New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who seized her position from Rep. Liz Cheney.  Rep. Stefanik has worked hard to endear herself to MAGA Republicanism but she has a history of seeking a moderate image and has not been active in far-right caucuses.  It therefore is unclear that the MAGA faction would go to the trouble of bypassing reliably pliant Reps. McCarthy and Scalise only to settle for her. 

     If far-right Republicans install one of their own as speaker, they likely will select someone with a lower profile, better communications skills, and less baggage than Rep. Jim Jordan.  Perhaps this new speaker will claim moderation as being “only” a member of the Republican Study Committee rather than the House Freedom Caucus.  In that event, we can expect the final two years of the Biden Administration to be dominated by partial government shutdowns.  At some point, that could open huge fissures in the Party as Members from marginal seats attempt to force legislation ending the shutdown to the floor over their own speaker’s objections with a discharge petition. 

     In sum, when it is a given that any Republican speaker will be either a far-right true believer or someone without the inclination or political capital to rein in more extreme Members, it matters little whether that speaker privately appreciates the danger of the Party’s extremism.  In the near-term, a savvy speaker from the Party’s more extreme factions could better-solidify Republican control over marginal seats.  But a weakened speaker who is known to recognize the problems with Russian influence and the January 6 insurrection might provide better cover for any attempt to overturn the results of the 2024 elections (either for president or in close House races). 


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