Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, is frequently derided as a weak, hollow, craven, opportunistic, transactional, nakedly ambitious political animal with no core principles.
Last week, he set heads shaking by announcing his opposition to the bill establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 sacking of the U.S. Capitol. The legislative negotiations had been led on the Republican side, reportedly at Mr. McCarthy’s explicit request, by Representative John Katko of New York. But Mr. McCarthy and his leadership team urged members to reject the deal, leaving Mr. Katko twisting in the wind. The plan passed on Wednesday. Thirty-five Republicans supported it, in what was viewed as a rebuke of Mr. McCarthy.
Some in the G.O.P. conference are asking: What kind of leader dispatches one of his troops to make a deal, then abandons and humiliates him over a bill that’s going to pass anyway? The most obvious answer: a pathetic one.
Such harsh assessments are unfair — though not because they are inaccurate. Mr. McCarthy has long done whatever it takes to get what he wants. And what he really, really wants now is the speaker’s gavel, which hovers just a few precious seats beyond his grasp. If Mitch McConnell, the ruthless, calculating Senate Republican leader, is a shark, Mr. McCarthy is a jellyfish, carried spinelessly along by the political currents.
But these days, such inchoate non-leadership is the best that House Republicans can hope for. In fact, that’s what they demand. In a conference increasingly dominated by Trumpian trolls (See: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Mo Brooks…), maintaining serious order is out of the question. Forestalling total anarchy requires a leader with an extraordinary gift for abject appeasement. It’s equal parts feeding the base the unhinged grievance it craves, while still keeping members from less Trumpy districts on board.
Mr. McCarthy has shown himself to be that leader, and he deserves recognition for rising — or rather sinking — to meet the moment.
Mr. McCarthy grew up the son of working-class Democrats in Bakersfield, Calif. He began his political career as an establishment player, working for Representative Bill Thomas, who was Mr. McCarthy’s congressman. In 1987, young Kevin applied for an internship in Mr. Thomas’s Washington offices. He was rejected, but finagled an unpaid post clipping news items in the Bakersfield office. Affable and sociable, Mr. McCarthy charmed his new boss and began working his way up.
Mr. Thomas, who served nearly three decades in Congress, was a political force both at home (his political machine dominated the district) and in Washington, especially during his time as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Under his wing, Mr. McCarthy learned the ins and outs of politics while hobnobbing with the party’s power players.
These connections helped smooth Mr. McCarthy’s own rise. In 2002, he was elected to the California Assembly.
In Sacramento, Mr. McCarthy organized social outings with colleagues, and poker nights became a regular draw for legislators at the place he shared with four other members. “I learned everything that happened in every committee while we’re sitting around talking,” he once told me of poker night. He traveled to colleagues’ districts, learned their needs, learned all about their families. In his first term, Mr. McCarthy was voted minority leader. Everyone loved Kevin.
He worked especially hard to bond with his fellow freshman members on both sides of the aisle. He became fast friends with Democrat Fabian Núñez, who became Assembly speaker. The two men worked well together, in part because Mr. McCarthy understood the art of negotiation and compromise. “Kevin is smart enough to know that, when dealing with politics, you have your views that are important,” Mr. Núñez once told me. “Beyond that, you have to accommodate the other side.” Come budget time, Mr. McCarthy knew how to do the give and take.
Mr. Thomas retired in 2006 and all but handed his seat to Mr. McCarthy. In the House, Mr. McCarthy continued his strategic schmoozing — visiting colleagues’ districts, handing out campaign cash, learning what made people tick. In his second term, he was tapped to be the chief deputy whip. “Kevin’s capacity to build and maintain relationships is not normal,” Representative Jim Banks, the Indiana Republican, recently marveled to The Times.
Mr. McCarthy joined forces with two other young up-and-comers, Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. Known as the Young Guns — the eventual title of a book they wrote about themselves — the trio proclaimed themselves the new generation of Republican leaders. Each had a clear role: Mr. Cantor was the leader and seen as on the fast track to head the conference. Mr. Ryan was the policy wonk. Mr. McCarthy was the political strategist. In keeping with the zeitgeist, the Young Guns were feistier, more conservative and more uncompromising than the old establishment. Gone were Mr. McCarthy’s days of playing nicely with the other side. They were going to reshape the G.O.P. in their image.
Today, Mr. McCarthy is the last Young Gun still in office. Mr. Cantor became House majority leader in 2011, before falling to a Tea Party challenger in his 2014 primary — an early sign of the G.O.P.’s anti-establishment drift. Mr. Ryan rose to be speaker in 2015, only to announce in April 2018 that he would not run for re-election, after a bumpy couple of years dealing with Mr. Trump.
McCarthy is not one to resign on principle nor let himself get outflanked on the right. To survive the rise of Trumpism, he has had to execute increasingly impressive political contortions. There have been missteps and setbacks. On those rare occasions when he has offended Mr. Trump — such as acknowledging that Mr. Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack — he has scrambled to make amends and prove his fealty. All that groveling would have crushed most men’s spirits. Not Mr. McCarthy. He is a champion people pleaser and appeaser.
But even the minority leader’s formidable skills are being tested by this moment. Some days, finding a way through this mess without a full-on meltdown looks impossible. But if anyone can manage the necessary mix of political nihilism and constant self-abasement, it will be Kevin McCarthy.
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