Americans wonder: What’s wrong with Kevin McCarthy?

Just In | The Hill 

How ironic that Kevin McCarthy, a former whip of the Republican House – the guy whose job it is to herd the cats – cannot bring his raucous caucus to elect him Speaker.

As many in the chattering classes unite in outrage over the “obstinate 20” who refuse to vote for the California Republican, millions of Americans wonder: What’s so bad about Kevin McCarthy? 

McCarthy is facing opposition from a group of hard-care conservatives, many of whom are part of the Freedom Caucus, who think McCarthy will do whatever it takes to advance his career even at the expense of his political philosophy. They do not trust him.

For some, it’s also personal, as they accuse McCarthy of backing House candidates based on the likelihood that they would support his election as Speaker as opposed to their ideological commitments; some of those candidates picked by McCarthy ran in primary contests against conservatives aligned with the Freedom Caucus.

It’s a tough judgement for someone who just helped Republicans take back the majority in the House. It’s also a shocker for a GOP leader who arguably helped reboot the conservative movement in the early years of this century. McCarthy, along with fellow young Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), created the House Republican Economic Recovery Working Group in 2009 to oppose the Democrats’ $800 stimulus bill. That much reviled and unprecedented spending bonanza was supposed to help the country recover from the 2007-2008 financial crisis. In reality, like most giant federal spend-a-thons, it was riddled with waste and fraud, and combined with a gusher of new regulations to usher in several years of subpar growth.

McCarthy criticized President Obama’s outsized spending program and offered an alternative plan, which focused on boosting hiring by small businesses through lowering taxes, providing increased unemployment help for those who lost their jobs and creating a floor under the devastated housing industry. Thirty Republicans, including conservatives such as Mike Pence and Kevin Brady, joined the House group. 

The program proposed by Ryan, Cantor and McCarthy became part of the GOP platform in 2010. In addition, just weeks before that year’s midterms, the three congressmen published “Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders.”

That book suggested the GOP had “lost sight of the ideals it believes in, like economic freedom, limited government, the sanctity of life, and putting families first.” 

The Young Guns, including McCarthy, can be credited with helping the GOP pull off one of the greatest midterm victories in history. Obama’s Democrats lost seven seats in the Senate and a net 63 seats in the House, the biggest power shift since 1948.  

The three also set out criteria for others in Congress who might be described as “Young Guns,” including a willingness to “to be proactive and go on the offense to change this House”. More irony: That willingness to “change the House” is exactly what McCarthy’s critics today say they want to do.

In “Young Guns,” McCarthy, Ryan and Cantor criticize the GOP for being “arrogant and out of touch” and for “failures from high-profile ethics lapses to the inability to rein in spending or even slow the growth of government,” judgments which for some resonate today.

How did Young Gun McCarthy come to be opposed by conservatives in his own party? The Heritage Foundation offers some clues.

In the most recent congressional session, McCarthy won an approval rating of 88 percent from the conservative organization, but in the 15th Congress (2017/2018), McCarthy was given a score of only 41 percent. His lifetime score from the conservative outfit is 53 percent, which compares to an 89 percent average rating for House Republicans.

In recent years, Heritage has criticized McCarthy’s votes in favor of big federal spending bills and for failing to fight for important reforms. For instance, McCarthy supported a farm bill in 2018 that, according to the conservative think tank, “does not strengthen work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents and does not include any meaningful or even minor subsidy reforms…”    

In that year, McCarthy also voted for the $855 billion “Cromnibus” spending bill that President Trump threatened to veto, saying it lacked important conservative policy riders as well as adequate funding for border security.

Meanwhile, McCarthy has been criticized for funding candidates in some primary races because they would support his election as Speaker, in some instances leaving the GOP victor so weakened that they failed to topple incumbent but vulnerable Democrats.

In New Hampshire, for instance, Politico reported that funding from McCarthy-directed PACS appeared to have flowed to GOP contender Matt Mowers instead of hard-right Karoline Leavitt. The two battled it out in the primary to take on Democrat incumbent Rep. Chris Pappas, considered one of the easiest targets in the November elections. A bruised Leavitt won the primary but ended up losing the race.

That was not the only contest where McCarthy was blamed for interfering and possibly costing Republicans a seat. As a result, one of the demands from the group now blocking McCarthy’s election is that the House leadership no longer insert itself in primary battles, but rather let the candidates duke it out on their own.

McCarthy raised and spent $100 million to secure a Republican majority in November. He poured money into the campaigns of many of the representatives now working hard to prevent him from becoming Speaker. That sounds ungrateful and personal. For some, it clearly is. As I write this, the minority leader has just failed a ninth vote; he appears to have stalled. His opposition is steadfast.

It may well be that McCarthy will have to step aside, for the second time losing his shot at the Speakership; perhaps another chance will present itself one day for the California dreamer.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek.

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