Kevin McCarthy has “leader” in his title, but the House minority leader is showing what a failure he is on that front. McCarthy has been flailing as Rep. Liz Cheney, currently the third-ranking House Republican, has outraged Trumpists with her insistence that the results of elections should be honored and insurrection is bad. McCarthy has joined the anti-Cheney camp, but clumsily, constantly playing catch-up rather than leading, and members of his own caucus are noticing.
McCarthy first went public with his opposition to Cheney in a probably fake “hot mic” moment on Fox News, then swiftly got behind Rep. Elise Stefanik’s leadership bid. Stefanik is less conservative but more loyal to Trump and more opportunistic than Cheney. McCarthy followed that up with a laughably weak letter in which he argued for purging Cheney from leadership while claiming Republicans as “a big tent party” where “unlike the left, we embrace free thought and debate.” (And, as a side point, made a hilarious reference to his “first small business,” which was a deli counter in the corner of his uncle’s frozen yogurt shop, and which he ran for a year before leaving to go to college.)
Getting on the anti-Cheney bandwagon may stave off the rebellion against McCarthy that would have been likely if he’d stuck with Cheney—because House Republicans are all in on Trump—but it’s not winning him any loyalty or points for leadership.
A House Republican “long seen as an ally of leadership” vented to Politico that if Republicans take the House in 2022, he might not support McCarthy for speaker. “I’d be worried if I was him … You have people like me—who are here to do the right thing for all the right reasons and have an expectation of leadership—that are, shall we say, disgusted with the internal squabbling that results from having weak leadership. And it is weak leadership. Straight up.”
According to a senior aide to a conservative House Republican, McCarthy has “flip-flopped on [Jan. 6 and whether it’s] Trump’s fault, it’s not Trump’s fault … It seems like he doesn’t have the backbone to lead. He bends to political pressure. It’s tough to do when you’re speaker. You have to lead.”
The fact that McCarthy immediately threw his weight behind Stefanik may turn out to be a problem for him as well, since Stefanik’s coronation has angered some Republicans, from the Club for Growth to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. After all, Stefanik didn’t get elected as a Trumpist—in fact, she not only didn’t embrace him as the 2016 Republican nominee but opposed some of his key priorities in 2017—so the scent of opportunism is extremely strong around her 2019 conversion. She has committed to only serve in leadership through 2022, but the dissatisfaction (and, again, failure of leadership by McCarthy) is clear.
With McCarthy and Stefanik, House Republicans will have the leadership they deserve, combining opportunism and craven sucking up to Donald Trump with … well, not much else. But they’ve made clear that they find this immensely preferable to Cheney, who is if nothing else a principled (in all the worst ways) conservative in addition to her principled (in an admirable, if inadequate, way) commitment to ensuring that the winners of elections are the people who take office, and avoiding violence along the way. This is how we know the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar are not aberrations within the Republican Party. They are its leading edge.