Editor’s Note: Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. He is also a former senior policy adviser to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Like a treasure hunter who hacks his way to the heart of the jungle only to find an empty chest, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy thought he was on his way to achieving his goal of becoming speaker before a rebellion on his right flank put that dream very much in doubt.
Currently, House Republicans are expected to hold a narrow majority in the next Congress – 222 seats to Democrats’ 213, if there are no changes to the projected winners. McCarthy, who recently was reelected as GOP leader, will need a majority, or 218, of the House representatives to vote for him on January 3 to become the next speaker.
That leaves the California Republican with just a handful of votes to spare if he wants to win. And CNN’s Chris Cillizza has already tallied five Republican congressmen who have expressed their unwillingness to vote for McCarthy.
With enough negotiations, concessions and wheeling and dealing, the most likely scenario is that McCarthy will squeak out just enough votes. But the uncertain start to his potential tenure, and the challenges he faces within his own caucus, reflect both the tumult of trying to lead a legislative body in an anti-institutional age and the fundamental uncertainty of what the Republican Party actually stands for.
McCarthy, don’t forget, started his career as a reform-oriented “Young Gun,” posing for the cover of the Weekly Standard with fellow GOP wunderkinds (and now-former Reps.) Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Eric Cantor of Virginia. The populist thrust in the party ultimately sidelined the other two, along with the magazine they appeared on, but McCarthy survived – in part by adopting the pose of an America First culture warrior.
In spring 2021, while Democrats were passing an American Rescue Plan that put billions of dollars into states’ hands and ended up fueling inflation, McCarthy made headlines by reading “Green Eggs and Ham” to protest the Dr. Seuss estate’s decision not to continue publishing six older books due to racial stereotypes. (“Green Eggs and Ham” was not one of the six books in question.)
McCarthy’s plans for the new Congress are far from ambitious. He boldly announced that each day will start with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance, something Congress already does. He also vowed to have the Constitution read aloud in its entirety – a nice gesture, but one Republicans have done in the recent past with little impact on the work of governing.
Because the Republican Party struggles to put forward a cohesive governing agenda (McCarthy’s touted Commitment to America was better suited as an attack on President Joe Biden’s administration than a detailed list of proactive agenda items), the matters that have caused some Republicans to rebel against a potential McCarthy speakership may seem picayune.
He has pledged to seek votes on removing Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff, both of California, and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from certain congressional committees, nominally for various violations. But diehard partisans will certainly see it as payback for Democratic actions, such as stripping Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia of her committee assignments – the kind of DC insider red meat that leaves most voters cold.
Other possible inside-baseball concessions are even more in the weeds. Reps. Bob Good of Virginia and Matt Rosendale of Montana, for example, have spoken about their desire to bring back the legislative maneuver known as the “motion to vacate the chair,” which would allow any member of Congress to seek a vote on removing the House speaker. That procedure, coupled with a razor-thin margin, would leave a future Speaker McCarthy on the proverbial hot seat.
And many of the more Trump-supporting figures, like Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who challenged McCarthy for his leadership post, prefer a more MAGA-aligned speaker. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, another “no” vote against McCarthy, has endorsed Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, partly stemming from his frustration that McCarthy had initially said the former president bore some responsibility for the riots on January 6.
But more moderate Republicans would likely shy away from Jordan as a candidate, and a centrist candidate would be anathema to the more populist wing. So McCarthy’s path to the speaker’s chair may end up being the least objectionable option.
Without a clear vision of what the Republican Party’s legislative priorities are, McCarthy’s presumptive speakership will mostly consist of oversight. And some aspect of feeding the political base is part of the game. His announced intentions to end proxy voting, which allowed lawmakers to cast their vote remotely, would be the right step, as would fully reopening the Capitol complex to visitors.
But McCarthy’s travails illustrate how trying to lead in an era when parties and institutions are held captive by an anti-establishment mentality will be a continual exercise in frustration. Base-pleasing moves like investigating the president’s son, Hunter Biden, don’t do anything to solidify Republican support where it is needed – the middle-class suburbs, which voted decidedly against stunts and for normalcy in last month’s midterm elections.
Fights over legislative committee assignments and empty culture war gestures may suck up political oxygen, but they don’t point the way forward to a more compelling argument for Republican control of Congress. Republicans who can hammer home an agenda that puts parents first, and is laser-focused on reducing crime and inflation, will be more attractive to an electorate that’s soured on MAGA candidates but also signaled displeasure with the Biden administration.
Either Kevin McCarthy will figure that out, or he’ll be replaced.