In Washington, a town coursing with shameless ambition, Kevin McCarthy’s thirst for power — and apparent willingness to do anything to get it, no matter how degrading — stands out. Back in 2015, he mounted a doomed campaign for House Speaker that ended when he acknowledged he had failed to build a consensus around his candidacy. McCarthy stumbled in part because he accidentally admitted, in an interview with Sean Hannity, that Republicans’ Benghazi probe was to some degree a “strategy to fight and win” by tanking Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. That scandal helped end his speakership bid, but not his designs on the gavel. Since 2018, when Nancy Pelosi succeeded Republican Paul Ryan, McCarthy has been on an embarrassingly transparent mission to unseat his fellow California representative, a dream he made explicit in his recent eight-and-a-half hour talkathon on the House floor. “I want her to hand that gavel to me,” McCarthy said.
His speech was nominally a protest against President Joe Biden’s social and climate spending plan, which Pelosi and the Democrats passed and sent to the Senate shortly after the minority leader ceded the floor. But it really served as McCarthy’s latest overture to Donald Trump and his followers. And like his previous efforts to court the MAGA right, it’s not clear if such obsequiousness is enough to secure his position as heir to the speakership should the GOP take back the House in next year’s midterms. Convincing Trump’s true believers that McCarthy is one of them appears to require ever more severe acts of capitulation.
The extremist Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed, in a recent episode of a nightmarish-sounding podcast hosted by her colleague Matt Gaetz, that McCarthy does not have the backing to make his dreams a reality because he hasn’t been supportive enough of Republicans like her. “He doesn’t have the votes that are there, because there’s many of us that are very unhappy about the failure to hold Republicans accountable,” Greene said, “while conservatives like me, Paul Gosar, and many others just constantly take the abuse by Democrats.”
As McCarthy has debased himself at the altar of Trump in his quest for the speakership, he has also tried at times to have it both ways — to appease the MAGA base without totally alienating the more normal Republicans who remain in the caucus. But Greene, who suggested she will not support McCarthy for speaker if the GOP takes power next year unless he addresses a list of her demands, essentially wants him to choose: her and Gosar, or Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney?
Most people would likely say he’s already made his choice. Though McCarthy has gone through the motions of expressing concern about the comments and conduct of his most radical members, he allied with Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection and voted against certifying Biden’s victory. He stood by Greene when Democrats stripped her of her committees over her outrageous remarks and behavior. He also did not take action against Gosar when Democrats removed him from his committees for posting a murder fantasy about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In contrast, he openly supported the purge of Cheney from GOP leadership and the exile of Kinzinger. Though both qualify as hardline conservatives, they fail what has become the essential Republican litmus test: cultish devotion to Trump.
That’s not enough for Greene, who wants them formally expelled from the GOP. She also wants McCarthy to punish his ally, John Katko, who had the audacity to impeach Trump for inciting an attack on the Capitol and support an investigation into that riot. He also — gasp — voted in favor of the desperately-needed infrastructure bill Biden signed into law this month. “Katko’s not a Republican,” Greene said on the Gaetz podcast. “He’s a Democrat.”
Katko is really not. But such is the mood in the Trump wing of the party, which is built not around coherent or productive ideology but reflexive partisanship, obstruction, and trolling. Of course, for all the press her endless provocations get her, Greene is not necessarily a spokesperson for all of her colleagues. Just because she says McCarthy doesn’t have the votes to earn a hypothetical Republican speakership doesn’t mean that’s true. But it does drive home a lesson that McCarthy appears not to have absorbed: No matter how Trumpy you try to be, there will always be somebody Trumpier.
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