I wrote a little piece a while back about the great California hope, the new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in which I pointed out that his alleged moderation was as exaggerated as the idea that he was chosen for his ideology. Majority leaders become majority leaders because they develop a network of support within the caucus through judicious use of both money and influence to build their power. McCarthy was a perfect example of that and ascended to his throne fairly effortlessly when Eric Cantor was ignominiously unseated by an unknown primary opponent. He's a very savvy pol.
So it's not surprising that over the weekend the entire village began to kvell in unison at the news that McCarthy was lecturing Republicans about the need to "govern" lest they be locked out of the presidency again in 2016. If there is one thing the political establishment loves more than anything it's a party leader scolding his own party, especially when they perceive it to be a call for a more genteel, centrist approach that doesn't challenge the status quo in any measurable way.
Now in this case, there might be good reason to hope that Kevin McCarthy was putting some of his extremist colleagues on notice that their more outlandish shenanigans were not going to be tolerated any longer. No more government shutdowns, no more indiscriminate budget slashing, no more ludicrous investigations into Benghazi! or the IRS. Now is the time for the Republicans to show they are indeed the grown-ups in the room and start working across the aisle with Democrats to get things done for the good of the nation. Unfortunately, McCarthy doesn't live in Republican Bizarro world and neither do we so the chances of that happening are about as good as the chance that Jerry Brown is going down to defeat next week. No, McCarthy is doing something a little bit different and if you parse his words carefully you'll see what it is.
Jake Sherman at Politico broke this story on Monday with this opening line:
HAUPPAUGE, N.Y. — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy landed here from Los Angeles with a bang: He bluntly warned that Republicans will blow the presidency in 2016 if they don’t make some radical changes — and quick.
McCarthy, speaking without a working microphone, told a group of Long Island donors that Republicans’ gains in the House will amount to little if they can’t govern over the next two years.
He goes on to lay out an agenda that is short on precipitous "cliffs" and long on "big picture" legislating. He claims they will introduce energy and infrastructure projects and business-focused tax programs. He expects to try to get more highway spending funded by more drilling. And he wants to set up "a congressional mechanism" that will completely overhaul the federal bureaucracy so that it works better. Why, if one didn't know better, one might assume this fellow thinks he won the presidency instead of the office of House majority leader.
All of this has the villagers very excited. If the Republicans can pass legislation in both houses then surely the president will be obliged to sign it and then everyone can have drinks like Tip 'n' Ronnie and we'll all live happily ever after. This is the best of all possible worlds to the political establishment -- a GOP Congress passing GOP legislation and a Democratic president happily signing it.
But that's not the plan. If you look more closely at what McCarthy is saying, he is putting Washington on notice that the Congress may pass a few bills the president can sign on to. But what he's really signaling is an intention to pass legislation in both houses that the president will veto.
McCarthy chooses his words carefully and this is what he is quoted as saying:
“I do know this,” McCarthy said. “If we don’t capture the House stronger, and the Senate, and prove we could govern, there won’t be a Republican president in 2016.”
Note that he doesn't say "prove we can govern," he says "prove we could govern," which implies that they will prove they can pass legislation but they need a Republican in the White House to get the job done.
McCarthy isn't calling for a new direction for the Republican Party or yet another "rebranding." He's laying out the GOP strategy for gaining the White House in 2016. And in a real show of confidence, he seems to believe that he's in charge of setting the agenda that will make that possible, even going so far as to dictate an overhaul of the functions of the executive branch.
I don't think we've seen a congressional leader with this level of chutzpah since 1994 when Newt Gingrich metaphorically rode into the capitol on an elephant and declared himself master of all he surveyed. One can only wonder what Speaker of the House John Boehner sees when he squints through the cloud of smoke that always surrounds him and sees Kevin McCarthy watching him intently, every minute of the day.