Tea Party’s cool older brother pulls the rug out from under them

Far right trampled Cantor and should have a claim to his leadership slot. So how is Kevin McCarthy doing so well?

Topics: Eric Cantor, House, Kevin McCarthy, House Majority Leader, 2014 elections, Debt ceiling, Republicans, GOP, Editor's Picks, Tea Party, The Right, aol_on,

Tea Party's cool older brother pulls the rug out from under themHouse Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif., right, joined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Eric Cantor’s defeat at the hands of economics professor David Brat was a cause of instant celebration and mockery worldwide, or at least among political junkies who consider Eric Cantor a generally unlikable person. Rarely has the ancient practice of pointing and laughing at someone whose career had just been ruined felt quite so rich. There are moments, and then there are moments. This was one of them.

But maybe the celebration went a little too far, too fast. You wake up the next morning, the next afternoon, head pounding, shoulder mysteriously dislocated, hair on fire, and realize all at once: Oh shit, they’re never going to raise the debt ceiling again. 

It’s been all too clear that Cantor’s defeat will put the final freeze on the possibility of any major “optional” legislation — comprehensive immigration reform, for example — making its way through Congress in the next … forever. But what about mandatory legislation? That depends on one’s definition of “mandatory.” Here on planet Earth, we consider things like funding the government and raising the debt ceiling “mandatory.” These are basic tasks that Congress must do in order to keep the country, and the world, functioning. Over in TeaPartystan, however, raising the debt ceiling, which the government bumps up against next in 2015, is more of an open question. And considering the hatred of the GOP House leadership demonstrated by Cantor’s ouster, there’s got to be more consternation within its ranks about bringing the next hike to the floor.

This is where the “good” news comes in. For all the tuff talk about how, post-Cantorgeddon, the next majority leader needs to be a Real Constitutional Conservative or a hot-bellied Tea Partyer or a deep-red-state Republican, it appears that the current House majority whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, may be able to glide into the No. 2 slot without much resistance. As the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein asks, for a stunning Tea Party victory, this? Groups that score Republicans’ voting records place McCarthy to the left of Cantor. Additionally, Klein writes, “McCarthy voted for a Hurricane Sandy relief bill that included spending that was unrelated to providing emergency aid, fought for the farm and food stamp bill, fought reforms to the federal sugar program, and backed an extension of the corporate welfare agency known as the Export-Import Bank. In January, he also supported a path to legal status for immigrants who entered this country illegally.”

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So … umm … how? How is a dirty California proto-RINO like McCarthy poised to win the promotion? The answer is deep inside-baseball and complex beyond basic human comprehension: He’s a nice guy and people like him. As the Washington Post writes, McCarthy “continued building personal relationships within the sprawling 233-member Republican Conference, deploying every networking tool at his disposal — small dinners, workouts in the House gym, long bike rides up the C&O Canal towpath. Almost no lawmaker was left unattended, including those who had been cast aside by past leaders.” That’s simple enough: He’s taken nearly each member of the House Republican conference on dates, and they’ve determined that he’s a sweetheart.

McCarthy, perhaps knowing from the get-go that his ability to rise in the leadership would depend on the relationships he could build with those who were much further right than him, has been cozying up to the newer classes of GOP members for years. Journalist Robert Draper chronicled this kinder, friendlier McCarthyism in his 2012 book about the chaotic 112th Congress, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do.”

Now that the eighty-seven freshmen had arrived in Washington, McCarthy offered himself up as their resident big brother. He regularly took them out for dinner on his political action committee’s dime. He played a weekly game of basketball with Jeff Duncan, Steve Fincher, and a few other freshmen. Nineteen of them slept in their offices, both as a symbolic commitment not to become Beltway fixtures and as a means of saving money. McCarthy also slept on his office couch, and in the morning he would go cycling or work out in the House gym with Paul Ryan and a few of the newbies. He gave them tips on running their offices. He organized get-togethers between them and the older members. And his Capitol office suite, H-107, became the freshman class’s unofficial flophouse, where they would go to filch a granola bar, have an evening glass of wine, or duck away momentarily from the demands of their own offices across the street.

The freshmen found it easy to connect with McCarthy. That he had spent the past year nurturing their political growth only partly explained the bond. The whip was informal (no one, including his staffers, called him anything other than Kevin), almost absurdly sunny, and far more proactively attentive than the ever-calculating Cantor of the amiable but oft-sequestered Boehner.

He was practically one of them. (pp. 78-79)

Kevin McCarthy, the Tea Party’s Cool Older Brother.

One of the book’s more amusing anecdotes about McCarthy involves the debt ceiling. Most of the GOP freshmen won their 2010 campaigns by promising never to raise the debt ceiling. As McCarthy knew, this was effective but also terribly dangerous rhetoric. And so he organized a “field trip” for these adults to the Bureau of the Public Debt, so they could learn about how the United States’ public debt was managed. “And after these field trips,” Draper writes, “they began to ask more questions.

And this was a good and necessary thing, since Kevin McCarthy knew something that many of these freshmen apparently did not — which was that Congress would ultimately need to raise the debt ceiling by August 2, so that the country could pay its bills and maintain its AAA credit rating. By the late spring of 2011, most of the eighty-seven freshmen and many of the more conservative House members were not of a mind to raise the ceiling, regardless of the consequences. McCarthy was working to change this.

Those of us who were alive during 2011 will remember that McCarthy and Co.’s clever plan to indoctrinate (/teach basic lessons to) the rank-and-file through field trips didn’t go too smoothly, as that summer descended into a debt ceiling crisis that only avoided arbitrary economic collapse by a fraction of a second. There have been several more slightly less traumatic debt ceiling episodes ever since, but each time, it’s gone a bit easier.

In the post-Cantor political world, though, progress may be receding. Primary-scared House members are going to push hard, yet again, to extract major concessions from President Obama the next time a debt ceiling hike is needed. The least we can hope for is that the House replaces Cantor with McCarthy, a known understander-of-the-debt-ceiling. (Then again, there are still several days until the closed-door House leadership elections — plenty of time for an anti-RINO revolt to land Rep. Louie Gohmert in the Majority leader slot.) Wrap it up, McCarthy!

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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