The Secret to McCarthy's Success

Column: The GOP speaker knows his role and plays it well

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
June 2, 2023

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) notched a victory for himself and for Republicans with Wednesday's passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. The bill will raise the debt ceiling through 2025, claw back pandemic and IRS spending, improve welfare programs, speed up permitting, reinstate student loan payments, and cut non-defense discretionary spending. The bill also has an enforcement mechanism: If Congress fails to pass the required appropriations bills by January 1, overall discretionary spending will be cut by 1 percent.

The legislation doesn't restore fiscal sanity to the federal budget—only changes to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would do that—but it is a step in the right direction. Since becoming speaker in January, McCarthy has faced a test: Could he strike a fiscal bargain with President Biden that would earn Republican support and avoid a breach of the debt ceiling and a government shutdown? Well, the grade is in. He aced the exam.

Consider where the parties started. Biden spent much of this year demanding that Congress raise the debt ceiling without preconditions. He refused to negotiate with McCarthy. At one point the White House floated the idea of tax increases. The speaker, by contrast, said that he was willing to work with the president to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for cuts.

Now look at where the two sides ended up: The Fiscal Responsibility Act is much closer to McCarthy's original position than it is to Biden's. It doesn't hike taxes. It reduces spending. It contains measures the Left can't stand. The public supports the deal by a two-to-one margin. Most Republicans and Democrats voted for it.

The media, as usual, highlight McCarthy's internal critics. They are a distraction. The press is so obsessed with Republican infighting that it overlooks the real story: Kevin McCarthy is shaping up to be the most effective House GOP leader in decades. Biden, the Democrats, and the liberal culture have been unable to transform him into a bogeyman. To the contrary: His net approval rating has risen by double digits since January. Biden's numbers have dropped. Nor is McCarthy's favorability the result of playing to the media crowd and appeasing the Left. The Fiscal Responsibility Act is the latest piece of significant center-right legislation that the House has passed this year.

What, then, is McCarthy's secret? He succeeds because it pays to be underestimated. He's not the first Republican to surprise a Beltway media that holds him in low regard. The rap on McCarthy has long been that he's an amiable politician with no ideological core. This lack of substance was exposed, according to conventional wisdom, by the disappointing outcome of last year's midterm election. The same conventional wisdom took as a sign of weakness the unprecedented concessions McCarthy made to the House Freedom Caucus to end the agonizing, 4-day, 15-ballot vote for speaker in January.

All these assumptions were wrong. McCarthy's amiability and flexibility are not liabilities but assets. The narrow Republican majority hasn't stopped the House from moving bills on the floor. Nor have McCarthy's concessions to the Freedom Caucus hindered him. Putting Freedom Caucus members on the important Rules Committee gave figures such as Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.) a stake in the legislative process. And the lowered threshold to remove the speaker is meaningless if a substitute is not waiting offstage.

McCarthy's superpower is his desire to be speaker. He likes and wants his job—a rarity for the GOP. He's the first public-facing Republican speaker since 1994 to be in sync with both his office and his conference. The talents that aided Newt Gingrich in his quest to build the first GOP House majority in 40 years did not necessarily translate to the speaker's office. Gingrich is a revolutionary, not an institutionalist. He's more interested in figuring out how America can ride the Third Wave into a technological utopia than in legislative detail and intra-party bargaining. His record of welfare reform and balanced budgets was impressive, but his tenure was chaotic.

Gingrich's successor, the disgraced Denny Hastert, avoided the limelight. President George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism and Freedom Agenda overshadowed Hastert, who delegated most of his authority to Tom "the Hammer" DeLay. By the time DeLay resigned over scandal in 2006, the Republican House majority was on the verge of collapse. Democrats took over Congress soon after. It fell to John Boehner to pick up the pieces.

Boehner became speaker in 2010, thanks in part to McCarthy's recruiting skills. The problem was that Boehner belonged to a different political era. He was a product of the 1990s and the early 2000s whose party was increasingly shaped by the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, bank and auto bailouts, and Barack Obama's "New Foundation" for America. Boehner hated living in "Crazytown," and it showed. The Tea Party Republicans didn't care for him either. The mismatch made Boehner miserable. As soon as he brought Pope Francis to Capitol Hill, he left.

The next Republican speaker, Paul Ryan, had the title forced on him. Ryan is a supply-sider and wonk. He understands dollars and cents. He's a protégé of Jack Kemp who felt out of place in Donald Trump's Washington. His main priority was the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Once it had Trump's signature, Ryan was ready to leave. Democrats won the House the following year. Ryan was out.

McCarthy, unlike his predecessors, has no earth-shattering plans. Holding the speaker's gavel is enough. He doesn't shy away from the camera. He doesn't represent a faction of the GOP; he tries to enact the party consensus. He isn't at war with Tea Party (now MAGA) conservatives. He wants to be on the rostrum. He alone commands majority support.

Maybe McCarthy will lose his touch in upcoming fights over assistance to Ukraine. Maybe one day an alternative to McCarthy will emerge, someone who can unify the Freedom Caucus along with the rest of the GOP conference. Maybe Democrats will take back the House next year. For the moment, at least, Kevin McCarthy is the rare Republican who both understands and is satisfied by the role he's been given and the responsibilities it entails. He wants nothing more nor less. And he's winning.