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Opinion: Kevin McCarthy has a huge challenge
Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)It is never a good idea to campaign too openly for a future congressional leadership post which assumes an outcome in an upcoming election. Experience dictates members of Congress demonstrate prudence and humility before voters cast their ballots, sometimes in unpredictable ways. House Democrats learned this hard lesson in 2020 as they underperformed unexpectedly and nearly lost their majority, while Joe Biden won the presidency by a comfortable margin.
House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy knows all this but is under pressure to marshal support for his likely run for House Speaker after the 2022 midterm in the event the GOP captures the majority in the House, as most pundits and pollsters are predicting. Still, it’s not a good idea to be very public about any of these internal deliberations based on the recent history and the plight of former GOP House speakers.
The last time House Republicans elected a speaker it was a messy affair. Let’s recall history, what led up to that fight and how it impacted McCarthy.
There are some moments on the floor of the US House of Representatives that will be forever indelibly stained in my political memory. One occurred on July 28, 2015, a few days before the August congressional recess. Then second term Congressman Mark Meadows came to the floor with a motion to “vacate the Chair,” which is legislative speak to fire and remove the Speaker of the House, who at the time was John Boehner.
Unsurprisingly, Speaker Boehner did not appreciate this most unwelcome coup launched by Meadows and some members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group composed of roughly 40 hardline members of the House Republican Conference. That a third-year Congressman would lead such a rebellion stunned nearly everyone in the room. As the intended target of this ill-considered coup, Boehner reacted with remarkable and measured restraint.
Noticing animated conversations among Freedom Caucus members on the floor upon the introduction of Meadows’ resolution, I raced to the Speaker’s senior staff in the well of the chamber and begged them to call the question to demand an immediate vote. Moments later I said the same thing to Boehner, arguing the Freedom Caucus was clearly divided on the question and it was time to quickly quash this half-baked uprising.
Rather than destroy his enemies in response, Boehner refused to force a vote on the matter out of concern for some of his House Republican allies who were facing primary election pressures and didn’t want this vote to be weaponized against them. I vigorously disagreed with that thinking and wanted to throttle this mutiny in its crib. If fear of a primary would prevent some GOP member from doing the right thing in this case, then it was time to grow a spine or find another career. Voters can sense fear and fecklessness; time to stand and be counted.
Two months later, on September 25, and the day after Pope Francis addressed Congress, Speaker Boehner announced his intention to resign from Congress. In the end, Meadows got what he wanted.
This brings us full circle to the plight of House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy. Back in 2015, McCarthy attempted to ascend to the speakership, only to be torpedoed in his quest by many of the same Freedom Caucus Members who had just fragged Boehner. This sent the House into turmoil and caused a leadership vacuum for several days until Paul Ryan agreed, reluctantly, to become Speaker.
The toxic political dynamics that blocked McCarthy in 2015 remain the same or worse. Donald Trump appears more of a problem for McCarthy than the Freedom Caucus at this point, although there is little daylight between these members and Trump on most issues. Trump, who runs hot and cold on McCarthy, could blow up his speaker campaign. In fact, Mark Meadows very publicly and unhelpfully floated the idea of Trump becoming the next House Speaker. Firebrand Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene publicly raised concerns with McCarthy as well. After a phone call with McCarthy, she tweeted a more supportive statement.
After extreme elements undermined McCarthy in 2015, he may be looking to avoid a similar situation should Republicans take the House in the 2022 midterms. But winning over fringe elements like Greene within the current GOP Conference could come at a cost to McCarthy with pragmatic, reality-based members, many of whom represent more competitive districts and recoil at the incendiary comments and behavior of extremist members who are a source of never-ending distractions and embarrassment and put at risk the GOP’s efforts to reclaim the majority.
McCarthy’s dilemma is this: His attempts to placate the extreme elements within his conference risk alienating moderates who are increasingly agitated by his inability to rein in the extremists and enforce standards of conduct (He should have taken swift action to remove Greene and Rep. Paul Gosar from their committee assignments, and, at the very least, condemned Rep. Lauren Boebert for making Islamophobic comments against Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar). McCarthy’s got problems on the far right, problems in the center.
If the GOP wins a substantial majority in the 2022 midterm, McCarthy’s chances of becoming speaker are much greater than if the party’s win is a narrow one. A narrow GOP majority would spell real trouble for McCarthy with Trump and some hardline members like Rep. Taylor Greene.
Pragmatic reality-based, center-right Republican members, whose support should not be taken for granted, believe McCarthy has been too acquiescent to Trump and other extreme voices within the GOP. With a slim House majority, the hardliners will likely use their leverage to squeeze or take down McCarthy just like they did Boehner in 2015.
At this point, it’s too early to predict who will become the next Speaker of the House, and no one has a lock on the job. There is no known or announced GOP challenger to McCarthy in his quest for speaker. Should he stumble, expect a messy free-for-all.
Should McCarthy become speaker, the bigger challenge for Republicans, given the head spinning dynamics within the GOP Conference, is this: what will they be able to accomplish?