Of the various reassessments of Kevin McCarthy following his successful debt ceiling negotiations, the one with the greatest implications is that of Matthew Continetti, who writes in The Washington Free Beacon: “McCarthy’s superpower is his desire to be a speaker. He loves and wants his job.”
If you hadn’t been following American politics for the past several decades, this would seem like an odd statement: what kind of house speaker should not do you want the job?
But part of what has gone wrong with American institutions of late has been the failure of key figures to view their positions as an end in themselves. Congress, in particular, has been overtaken by what Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute describes as a “platform” mentality, with ambitious members of the House and Senators treating their offices as places to stand and be seen – like talking heads, movement leaders, future presidents – rather than as roles to inhabit and opportunities to serve.
On the Republican side, this tendency has taken various forms, from Newt Gingrich’s desire to become a great man of history, to Ted Cruz’s ambitious greatness in the Obama years, to the rise of Trump-era performance artists like Marjorie Taylor Greene. And the party’s congressional institutionalists, from dealmakers like John Boehner to policymakers like Paul Ryan, have often been miserable-seeming prisoners of the talking heads, famous brands, and future presidents.
This dynamic also seemed likely to imprison McCarthy, but he’s found another way of dealing with it: he’s invited some of the bombers into the legislative process and is trying to turn them from platform seekers into legislators by giving them a stake in the to give management. , and so far he has been rewarded with crucial support from figures like Greene and Thomas Massie, the headstrong Kentucky libertarian. And it’s clear that part of what makes this possible is McCarthy’s enthusiasm for actually counting the votes, the enforcement work his position requires, and his lack of both Gingrichian egomania and get-me-away-impatience.
But McCarthy doesn’t operate in a vacuum. The Biden era has generally been good for institutionalism, as the president himself seems to understand and appreciate the nature of his office more than Barack Obama ever did. As my colleague Carlos Lozada pointed out on our podcast this week, both in the Senate and White House, Obama was filled with palpable impatience at all the restrictions on his actions. This was constantly reflected in his negotiating strategy, where he tended to use his own office as an expert’s platform, lecturing the GOP on what they should support and thereby alienating the Republicans from compromise in advance.
While Biden, who would have loved to be a senator, is clearly comfortable with silent negotiations on reasonable grounds, which is crucial to keeping the other side in a deal. And he also likes to spin the spinning machine on both sides of the aisle, rather than constantly imposing his own rhetorical narrative on whatever bargain Republicans would strike.
The other crucial element in the saner environment is the absence of what Cruz brought to Obama’s debt ceiling negotiations: the kind of far-reaching maximalism, designed to build a presidential brand, that turns normal horse trading into an existential struggle.
Some liberals expected that kind of maximalism from the Republicans and continued to push for intransigence from Biden long after it became clear that what McCarthy wanted was more in line with earlier debt ceiling agreements. But McCarthy’s reasonableness was durable because of the absence of a leading Republican senator playing Cruz’s absolutist role. Instead, the most notable populist Republican elected in 2022, JD Vance, has been busily seeking deals with populist Democrats on issues such as railroad safety and bank executive compensation, or adding a constructive amendment against the debt ceiling bill, even though he voted against it – as if, no less than McCarthy, he really likes and wants his current job.
One of the reasons for the decline of Cruz-like bleachers is the continued presence of Donald Trump as the leader of the GOP, to whose elevation no senator can reasonably aspire. At least until 2024, it is clear that the only way Trump could be dethroned is through the counter-programming offered by Ron DeSantis, who sells himself — we shall see with what success — as the nominee of governance and competence ; no greater celebrity or demagogue walks through that door.
So for now, there’s more benefit to legislative normality for ambitious Republicans, and less temptation toward the platform mentality, than there would be if Trump’s role were up for grabs.
Whatever happens, it will take years for that role to become vacant. In that case, Kevin McCarthy could be happy in his job for much longer than anyone watching his arduous ascent would have expected.