Politics

Kevin McCarthy Is About to Enter Political Hell

The likely GOP speaker may well preside over one of the most chaotic House terms in American history.

Left to right in collage: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan
Good luck, buddy. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images and Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

The final count is in: Republicans will hold a slim 222–213 majority in the House of Representatives, giving whoever lands the terrible job of speaker a four-seat cushion on any floor vote. That’s the exact margin that outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi has worked her formidable magic with for two years. Pelosi, however, had two things that her Republican counterpart will not: a caucus full of mostly sane team players, and a policy agenda less radioactive than graphite from an exploded nuclear reactor.

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It’s not as if this is a new problem for the GOP. But previously, when House Republicans held majorities over for the past decade-plus, their near-total dysfunction was papered over by margins large enough to do frequent end runs around hard-liners. Starting in 2015, that group coalesced as the Freedom Caucus, an assemblage of several dozen zealots that today reads like a who’s who of the dimmest bulbs ever to serve in Congress, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jim Jordan, and Lauren Boebert. This year’s crop, though, is a newer, even loopier iteration of the incorrigible knuckleheads who repeatedly paralyzed the American government through budget standoffs during the Obama administration and would’ve happily sent the country over the cliff by defaulting on the country’s debt rather than raise the borrowing limit.

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A number of Freedom Caucusers have already said they won’t vote for Kevin McCarthy as speaker unless he agrees to a ludicrous set of hostage-taking demands that would deprive him of significant power. But for the sake of argument, let’s say McCarthy manages to create a set of parameters acceptable to 218 people in his caucus and becomes speaker. He will still face two really consequential problems in terms of avoiding one of the most chaotic House terms in American history.

One is that McCarthy himself is talking like a Freedom Caucuser. He’s the one who first publicly floated the idea of using the debt ceiling to force social spending cuts, and he’s out there right now yapping about investigating Google and Facebook for their role in “suppressing” the Hunter Biden story in October 2020. To lead effectively, he’s going to need to be the person who tries to shut down the Freedom Caucus’ brand of toxic nonsense. Instead, while he is not yet calling for setting aside the Constitution because of some 2-year-old content moderation decisions on a private media network, he looks more like the loonies’ ringleader.

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The Freedom Caucus’ demands won’t end with idle chatter. Its members will likely demand hearings and then impeachment proceedings based on Hunter Biden’s purported laptop material, an issue Republicans have now spent many years trying to get a justifiably indifferent general public to care about, with zero success. Because there are likely at least four Republicans in the House who understand that it’s a terrible idea to impeach the president over an inscrutable, decade-old scandal that no one even pretends involved a crime, they won’t have the votes to do it anyway.

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Making Obama-era material from the president’s son’s computer the centerpiece of the House GOP’s agenda would be bad enough if that were all they were promising to do. But the only other thing they seem eager to talk about is gutting Social Security and Medicare. And that’s the second big problem, for which McCarthy himself is as responsible as anyone.

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Republicans seem incapable of resisting the urge to publicly threaten Social Security anytime they reach even the warning track of power. This is especially puzzling since they will utterly lack the power to gut the program over the next two years, they haven’t come close to doing it even when they’ve held Congress and the presidency this century, and they are surely aware that cutting or privatizing Social Security polls only marginally better than police abolition.

Remember that GOP leaders and their media mouthpieces just spent the past two years hanging the politically damaging phrase Defund the Police around Democrats after a handful of them briefly embraced the concept during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. While some cities did reduce their police budgets after 2020, many of those same cities increased their police spending the following year. If anything, most Democrats in competitive races last month spent their campaigns promising to lavish cops with enough scratch to last them through the end of the century. For better or worse, Democrats are people who can read polls and act on them.

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Can Republicans? Nonpartisan polling suggests that just 28 percent of voters  want a lengthy investigation of Hunter Biden’s computer. Neither Social Security nor Medicare figured prominently in the 2022 election, and both remain broadly popular. There is also more to public policy than popularism. Without these programs, millions of seniors would be plunged into a nightmare of poverty and desperation. Privatization would leave retired Americans vulnerable to the inevitable pyramid schemes and junk fees and hedge fund disasters that often befall other investors. Slashing benefits would have a more immediate, and catastrophic, effect.

There’s a reason Social Security is talked about as the “third rail” of American politics, an evocative phrase coined by Kirk O’Donnell, an aide to Reagan-era Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Republicans, though, seem to have misunderstood the underlying metaphor all along. For them, cutting the flagship New Deal program is more like a third rail of cocaine, and they want to hit it again and again.

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Over the years, GOP leaders have done more of this drug than the young London finance sociopaths on HBO’s Industry, and every single time it has left them in the same state: bereft of policy achievements, no closer to moving the public opinion status quo than before they started, and covered with political bruises. It’s the kind of repetitive self-harm behavior that makes you wonder what the motivation for it could possibly be.

Many of us are old enough to remember when George W. Bush, fresh off his narrow win over John Kerry in 2004, promised entitlement reform because he had been given a “mandate” by the voters to do so. Yet voters were taken aback, because the GOP’s only real messages that year had been promising to ban gay marriage everywhere including the moon, and that Democrats were objectively pro–Osama Bin Laden. Despite investing time and political capital in privatizing Social Security, Republicans cut bait on that plan almost immediately and never seriously revisited it, even after winning a trifecta in 2016. By that time, they were much too busy trying, and failing, to repeal the Affordable Care Act a thousand times.

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New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait once memorably described the GOP as “a machine committed relentlessly to the singular goal of cutting taxes for the rich.” Today, the GOP’s most committed upward-wealth redistributors still occupy most of the important party leadership positions in Congress, but they now manage an uneasy alliance with MAGA performance artists obsessed with the Laptop, anti-woke culture warriors who are gleefully driving a wave of hatred and violence against LGBTQ Americans, and a growing contingent of antisemitic and dark-web weirdos who get invited to dine with former President Donald Trump.

That’s not just unworkable in the long term. It’s also a coalition that seems designed to turn the House of Representatives into Kevin McCarthy’s—and our—worst nightmare.

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