Washington Whispers: The Next Speaker or the Ultimate Empty Suit?
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
QAnon’s favorite member of Congress, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, is on a tear again. But don’t expect House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to do anything about it.
Two weeks ago, Greene attacked Speaker Nancy Pelosi for requiring House members to show they have been vaccinated against Covid-19 or else wear masks in the House chamber. In an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Greene equated this reasonable requirement with the Nazi treatment of Jews: “You know, we can look back in a time in history where people were told to wear a gold star, and they were definitely treated like second-class citizens—so much so that they were put in trains and taken to gas chambers in Nazi Germany. And this is exactly the type of abuse that Nancy Pelosi is talking about.”
Greene followed this up with a tweet last week equating the vaccination logo grocery workers are being permitted to place on their work badges—presumably to put customers’ minds at ease and aid commerce—to the yellow Star of David badges that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany so they could be identified, persecuted, and murdered.
In reaction, Kevin McCarthy issued this statement: "Marjorie is wrong, and her intentional decision to compare the horrors of the Holocaust with wearing masks is appalling…Let me be clear: the House Republican Conference condemns this language."
But McCarthy did not make this statement for five days—until the coverage of Greene’s statements and negative reactions to them by some of his Republican colleagues, Democrats and Jewish organizations made it impossible for him to ignore them any longer.
Joel Rubin, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, called for Greene to be expelled from the House. Rubin expressed outrage that she equated wearing a mask to save lives with walking millions of innocent civilians to the gas chamber. He told CNN, "Kevin McCarthy ... is not showing leadership and he needs to stand up and he needs to expel Marjorie Taylor Greene.”
McCarthy did go so far as to condemn Greene’s words. But, knowing on which side his bread is currently buttered, he did not specifically condemn Greene—one of Donald Trump’s favorites at the moment—or even threaten to censure her, let alone advocate expulsion. In fact, McCarthy managed to work into his statement an attack on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, trying to distract from Greene and his own lack of action by claiming that Pelosi is ignoring a rise in antisemitism in the Democratic party.
Greene, however, did not appreciate the thin line McCarthy was attempting to walk. She retweeted, praised, then deleted a tweet by Twitter user @SimplePatriot that called McCarthy a “moron” and a “feckless c**t.”
SimplePatriot was right about at least one thing. As McCarthy’s career demonstrates, he is feckless; that is, lacking in strength of character.
The Associated Press wrote in 2018, that McCarthy, first elected in 2006 as the representative of California’s conservative 23rd District, “is often first to admit he’s not the smartest guy in the room.” But McCarthy is clearly good at glad-handing other politicians to get ahead. Mark A. Martinez, a political science professor at California State University, Bakersfield, told AP that McCarthy had shown a talent for ingratiating himself to leaders in Bakersfield (within his District), Sacramento, and now Washington, D.C. Jim Brulte, a former McCarthy mentor and the California GOP chairman in 2018, said “Nobody didn’t like Kevin.” Brulte claimed that even McCarthy’s opponents liked him.
Within three years of his first election to Congress, McCarthy became Chief Deputy Whip and subsequently Majority Whip. In 2014, he was elected to succeed Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor as House Majority Leader, making him second in command to then-Speaker of the House John Boehner.
But ascending to Speaker of the House has always been just beyond McCarthy’s reach. His most incurable obstacle seems to be that he likes the taste of feet so much that he can’t keep his foot out of his mouth.
In 2015, when Boehner left Congress, McCarthy was thought to be next in line for the Speakership —until he let the cat out of the bag, saying out loud the real reason for the Republicans’ interminable Benghazi hearings.
The stated purpose of the Select Committee on Benghazi was to examine a terrorist attack in Libya that left four Americans dead. The committee grilled Hillary Clinton who had been Secretary of State during the incident and was expected to be a front-runner for the 2016 Democratic Presidential candidacy.
But McCarthy claimed the Committee as an accomplishment for the Republicans—not because it discovered details about the terrorist act, but because Clinton’s favorable numbers were dropping. McCarthy couldn’t keep himself from using a Fox News interview to crow: “…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. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.”
Paul Ryan got the Speakership.
In 2018, McCarthy’s mouth threatened to get his party into worse trouble than his admission about the Benghazi investigation had. In a private, but recorded conversation with other GOP leaders a month before Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination, McCarthy said, "There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump." (Dana Rohrabacher was a California Republican Rep. known as a strong defender of Putin and Russia.) When some who were present laughed, McCarthy said, “Swear to God.” Speaker Ryan immediately shut McCarthy up, and advised those Republicans present not to repeat what was said.
Ryan’s office initially claimed this never happened and then, when faced with the fact the Washington Post had a recording, claimed McCarthy was joking.
Despite this tendency toward foot-in-mouth disease, McCarthy again had a chance at the speakership when, in 2018, Paul Ryan announced his retirement. But, alas for Kevin, the Democrats won a majority of House seats and, so far, have kept it. So, McCarthy has remained House Minority Leader.
If the Republicans take back the House majority in 2022, McCarthy might yet make it to the Speakership. His challenge now is whether he can appear right-wing enough to satisfy the Trump adherents in Congress and still satisfy big campaign donors who are upset with the antics of fanatics like Greene.
In trying to hedge his bets, McCarthy is the proverbial ball bouncing erratically off the walls.
On Election Day, he appeared on Fox News insisting Trump had won the 2020 election and exhorting listeners: “We cannot allow this to happen before our eyes.”
Yet according to a tweet by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, McCarthy told him weeks after the election that Trump had lost by a clear margin. Moreover, McCarthy told Wasserman that Trump’s continued challenge of the results could be dangerous—that he and McConnell might have to issue statements acknowledging the result. McConnell made such a statement on December 15. Five months later, on May 12, McCarthy said only “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election.”—this while his party is actively attempting faux election fraud investigations and passing voter suppression laws in the guise of needed election protections all over the country.
Despite McCarthy’s initial denunciation of the election results, he did not, at first, sign on to the legal brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn them. But, when it was noted that his name was absent from the brief, which contained the names of 100 other Republican House members, his name suddenly appeared the next day.
During the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, McCarthy went on television to decry the violence, and tried to get Trump to issue a forceful statement to stop it.
On January 13, McCarthy acknowledged that Donald Trump bore responsibility for the attack. But at the same time, he implored members not to hold Trump responsible. And two weeks later, McCarthy traveled to Mar-a-Lago to get back into Trump’s good graces.
According to CNN last week, several GOP sources have said that McCarthy currently has one goal—getting to be House Speaker—and won’t do anything he thinks will hurt his chances. As far as taking any action against Marjorie Taylor Greene, one GOP donor said, “Donald Trump likes her, he supports her, and Kevin doesn’t want to upset Trump.”
Is it any wonder then, that McCarthy avoids taking any real action to reign Greene in, but allows the ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney, who opposes Trump, from leadership? Is it any wonder that he is sidelining conservatives and elevating the power of extremists like Jim Jordan and the far-right Freedom Caucus?
Nor, given the man’s nature and ambition, is it any wonder that, whenever possible, he avoids making any decisions that could be controversial within his party? After all, taking a stand one way or another could lose him votes that could make him the Speaker.
So, in February, when Greene’s spreading of conspiracy theories and endorsement of threats to the lives of Democratic colleagues became an issue, McCarthy found a way to avoid being the one to make a decision. He reluctantly had a private conversation with Greene, then passed the buck to the Republican Steering Committee, which adjourned without rendering a decision on Greene. McCarthy then proposed to the Democrats a compromise in which he would remove her from one committee. When they rejected that, he pretended not to know anything about QAnon, the source of her theories, and refused to take any disciplinary action. This resulted in a full vote on the floor of the House with the Democratic majority stripping her of her committee assignments.
Though Greene is continuing her outrageous and dangerous behavior, she has also raised at least $3.2 million in the first quarter of this year from many thousands of people who share her views. From McCarthy’s perch, what’s not to like?
Kevin McCarthy continually shows himself to be a man who has no principles of his own, good or bad. He’s just a barnacle that will latch onto any passing ship he thinks will take him where he wants to go. If—the fates forfend—he should become the Speaker of the House in 2022, a lesson in the evil that banality ushers in may follow.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.