Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Kevin McCarthy is an extraordinarily weak House speaker, who is unnecessarily taking the entire country to the edge of a fiscal cliff by refusing to support a standalone vote to increase the debt ceiling. He is letting himself be pushed around by the most radical elements of an already radicalized House Republican caucus by linking the issue with steep spending cuts that Democrats have made clear they will not accept.
This latest example is one of the most dangerous chapters of his nascent speakership thus far. It has become very clear that McCarthy lacks the kind of gravitas and command displayed by his Democratic predecessor, Nancy Pelosi. As speaker, Pelosi led her caucus instead of caving to their demands. She made strategic decisions, pushing fellow House Democrats to get behind landmark legislation in some cases, and in others, holding them off from moves she believed would harm the party. Pelosi, who earned the respect and fear of her colleagues, cared deeply about the health of the democracy, not just her own standing.
McCarthy, on the other hand, seems to be following the more extreme elements of his party rather than leading them. He has no capital to convince the hard-right Republicans to take on a more reasonable position, nor would he have the courage to try to broker an alliance with moderate Republicans and Democrats to solve this problem once and for all. And he has not been effective at protecting a number of vulnerable Republicans in swing districts who can easily lose their seats — and cost Republicans their majority in the House — if the US defaults on its debt.
His performance should not come as a surprise. McCarthy was never known as a politician who was interested in much more than gaining power. Throughout the Trump years, McCarthy aligned himself with the president and was famously unwilling to criticize him. When McCarthy issued a rare rebuke, publicly saying Trump bore responsibility for the insurrection on January 6, 2021, it was only a matter of weeks before he visited Mar-a-Lago in an apparent attempt to make amends and court Trump’s assistance in helping Republicans take the House – a necessary step to get him the speakership.
Calling that Mar-a-Lago visit “stunning,” Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming criticized McCarthy, telling NBC News in May 2021, “I think that he is not leading with principle right now. And I think that is sad and I think it’s dangerous.” In other words, his move to cozy up to Trump after January 6 and his apparent ambition to become speaker seemed to outweigh everything else.
During the 15 rounds of voting that it took for him to win the speakership at the beginning of this year, McCarthy obtained power by giving much of it away. He conceded to key demands of the hard-right Republicans, including sought after committee appointments for many of the holdouts, a new select committee to investigate the “weaponization” of the Justice Department, more opportunities to amend certain legislation on the floor and, most dramatically, a move making it much easier for the caucus to remove him at any time.
Since taking the position, McCarthy has acquiesced to the radical Republicans’ demands, which include devoting the House Republican majority to investigating just about anything they can think of. That means using congressional committees to dig into President Joe Biden’s family, members of his administration – and more.
Although they’ve haven’t come up with anything directly connected to the president, Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, the senior party statesman who former Republican Speaker John Boehner once called a “legislative terrorist,” won’t stop trying. The goal here seems to be to use Biden’s son to smear and tarnish the president as much as possible ahead of the 2024 campaign.
McCarthy is well aware of the game. Back in 2015, he caused a firestorm when he admitted that the Benghazi investigation was focused on bringing down former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. He told Fox News’ Sean Hannity: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” Ultimately, the investigation never proved anything other than how far the GOP was willing to go to bring down its opponents.
As speaker, McCarthy’s only major legislative victory thus far has been to cobble together a bill that reflects the spending cuts that the House Republicans want in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling. Hardly a profile in courage.
Now he is digging in on the debt ceiling fight. After suffering through a global pandemic and Trump’s full-blown effort to overturn the 2020 election, there is no need to voluntarily put the nation through a major economic crisis. But that is what he and the GOP are threatening to do.
Rather than holding a vote and agreeing to pay the bills that Congress has already agreed to spend money on, McCarthy is following the Tea Party playbook from 2011 and 2013. He is seriously threatening to stifle the vote unless Biden agrees to a sweeping package of draconian spending cuts to domestic programs that could affect cancer research, air traffic control, energy credits, Pell grants for tens of thousands of students and more. It’s worth noting that even if McCarthy and Biden can come to an agreement, fruitful negotiations made in good faith should not involve the threat of a default.
As the president has argued, the Republicans are holding the nation’s economy “hostage” to extract concessions from the administration. Now that Trump sent word to the GOP to stand firm on this issue during his CNN town hall meeting on Wednesday, the pressure on McCarthy will only intensify.
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He would be wise to look to speakers of yore who managed to exert their power and lead in difficult situations. Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn, who governed in an era when independent committee chairmen ruled the House, used informal relationships and his own stellar reputation to move legislation during the majority of the years from 1940 to 1961. He managed to pass bills that were integral to the mobilization of World War II, as well as landmark legislation, such as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 and the National Defense Education Act of 1958.
More recently during Trump’s presidency, Pelosi held off the first impeachment for many months despite intense pressure from her caucus. She only went forward with it after a months-long investigation revealed evidence that Trump had asked Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political rival while withholding military aid to the country. (Trump denied any wrongdoing.)
In contrast, McCarthy is just following the demands of the radical Republicans, letting them run the show, call the shots and dictate what conservative governance looks like. If he doesn’t find a way to exert some sort of leadership in the coming weeks, the entire country might be paying the price.