Kevin McCarthy had something of a coming out moment this week.
The House minority leader’s marathon, midnight hours speech panning the “Build Back Better” agenda put forward by the White House was likewise panned. Never one to hold his tongue, Richard Hanania, president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, said “I always thought [McCarthy’s] aesthetic was ‘strip mall insurance salesman,’ but now I think it’s ‘strip mall insurance salesman who happens to be a closeted homosexual.’” Ouch… Humorous? Yes. Edifying? I’m not no sure.
The truth is Leader McCarthy is probably far closer in background to the median Republican voter than almost anyone in power in Washington or the conservative ivy tower. From Bakersfield, California, he hails from an important small city slagged on by the rest of the state. Peer through the microscope, of course, and the American political divide, with all of its attendant blood feuds, isn’t so much red vs. blue as it is urban vs. rural, or perhaps at its most bitter, urban vs. exurban or small metropolis.
More Californians voted for Donald Trump in 2020 than did Texans. And whatever McCarthy allegedly lacks in Edmund Burke-reading, or poshness, or core convictions, or right-wing bona fides, or whatever, he makes up in looking, feeling, and talking a lot more like your median GOP voter than almost anyone else prominent in American life: that is, reflexively anti-Democrat, perhaps sketchy on the details of an alternative.
But Republican leadership in the House, or an election of a speaker, is not handled by national referenda or who-would-you-have-a-beer-with sentimentality. It is determined by conclave, held from the far reaches of the internet to the OANN green room.
And here McCarthy is dogged, not so much for alleged deficiency in masculine vigor (considering history, that’s a new one), but for conservative skepticism that he’s truly brethren. McCarthy was heir apparent for Republican leadership back in the pre-Trump days of 2015, only to have his leadership bid torn asunder by a never-proved sex scandal with a fellow member of Congress and a general view of him as moderate squish. In the olden-days conservative paradigm, into the breach stepped that rock-ribbed right-winger, Paul Ryan. What was weirder: the Trump years or the pre-Trump years?
But as Reagan said, more or less: Here we go again.
With the apparent Republican rampage in Virginia and New Jersey set to go nationwide next year, all eyes are on who could replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. McCarthy is, once again, the favorite. And he, once again, has some plucky doubters. “Recent events show that McCarthy still has trouble on his right flank and is far from guaranteed the Speakership if Republicans take back the House,” 270toWin election analyst Drew Savicki said this month. True enough, he’s no sure thing.
But things have changed since 2015. As Congress’ power has continued to wane, and as more and more Republicans are licking their chops to take the White House for themselves, interest in the “leadership lane” in the legislature is at a nadir. Sure, GOP House number three Elise Stefanik, the latest leadership entrant installed this past spring, is hardly “MAGA”… but is there an alternative at all interested, at the ready?
Would-be outsider speaker candidates of a generation past, such as Ohio’s Jim Jordan, have shown their true colors in recent months. By declining a run in the Ohio Senate race, where the Trump buddy could have denied J.D. Vance a shot at the prize, Jordan has shown that he’s not only interested in sniping from the green room, he’s also committed to simply staying there.
Shares of Republican triumph next fall, as of this writing, are trading at 83 cents on PredictIt. You can get Democratic shares at a fire-sale 18 cents. The writing would seem to be on the wall, and the hour of Speaker McCarthy would seem to be nigh, all kvetching aside.
Again, as of this writing, there are only two outside possibilities to stop McCarthy’s stampede to power. Too bad for the Golden Stater, they are also intriguing options.
Steve Scalise, McCarthy’s number two, after years of murmurs that he might kill the king, has for almost just as many years now shown he’s going to let McCarthy take his long-forestalled shot. Let’s exclude him.
So, the first plausible alternative to McCarthy is the forty-two year-old Indiana Congressman Jim Banks. Head of the Republican Study Committee, he has revitalized the institution that was founded in the 1970’s, that once bedeviled that Caesarian speaker, Newt Gingrich, and that was once chaired by Mike Pence.
Banks is the House’s answer to Marco Rubio, in that he has courted a Star Wars cantina of ascendant intellectual voices and tendencies on the political right, in the hopes of being seen if not as an intellectual outright himself then certainly as an able standard-bearer for their views, whatever those are.
Since taking over the RSC in January…
Here, in May, Banks was speaking to conservative intellectual hothouse, the Claremont Institute. Here’s word of his consultations with Mike Pompeo on Iran policy (concerning stuff for many foreign policy restrainers). Banks has also cultivated a Pompeo frenemy and potential 2024 rival, former national security advisor Robert C. O’Brien, retaining him for consult after President Biden’s controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan. Foreign Policy recently dubbed O’Brien an “Obi-Wan Kenobi of sorts for young Republicans,” given his close consults with candidates on foreign policy, and Banks has certainly tried to follow his lead, appearing on the Zoomer conservative e-show put out by American Moment, where the plausible future speaker was called “the Indiana man with a plan.” Banks even hosted Gingrich himself recently, who is hocking some sort of new “Contract with America.” A Republican congressional candidate told me over the weekend: He thinks Banks is the guy.
The second, major McCarthy alternative is…well-known.
“I would love to see the gavel go from Nancy Pelosi to Donald Trump,” former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon on Bannon’s “War Room” show. “You talk about melting down … people would go crazy … As you know, you don’t have to be an elected member of Congress to be the speaker. She would go from tearing up a speech to having to give the gavel to Donald Trump.”
One Republican insider summarized to me this week an emerging Washington political version of a law of absurdity: The presidents keep getting older, the outlandish keeps happening, and watch out, we would appear to be being borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Stranger things have happened than a Speaker Trump. There was President Trump.