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Nowhere Man

House Republicans Are Going to Wish They Had a Nancy Pelosi

What does Kevin McCarthy bring to the table, besides an obsessive need to be liked by a caucus beyond his control?

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy

At a certain point, if you find yourself having to repeatedly ask, “Who’s in charge?” then the answer is, “No one’s in charge.” This is a lesson I taught my daughter when she was 5. Last week’s election for speaker of the House, which culminated in the crowning of Kevin McCarthy after 15 rounds of “Who’s in charge?” has further exposed just how much the adult-aged children who nominally hold the levers of federal power haven’t learned the lesson. It may be McCarthy’s name at the top of the pecking order, but it’s the lesser peckers running the show now.

Why does the man former President Donald Trump referred to as “my Kevin” even want to be speaker of the House? As best as I can tell, this question has largely been overlooked. The speaker position itself and all its accompanying responsibilities are not the things McCarthy actually wants. As Saul Alinsky once wrote: The issue is never the issue.

McCarthy has specific cravings, however. He has spent his entire career obsessively yearning to be liked and accepted; with his vaulting ambition married to his need for approval, McCarthy has simultaneously stood for nothing and everything. He just wants to get along. Is that too much to ask?

Well, as they say, if you want to be well liked, adopt a dog. When one’s moral compass solely points in the direction of being liked and accepted, this a most dangerous trait, befitting no one worthy of any position of leadership, power, or lawmaking. McCarthy wants the speaker gavel only because he sees it as the ultimate affirmation that he’s now fully in the fold. But the arrangements he’s made to win his post are the very things that could make his gratification short-lived. His will be a reign on the knife’s edge: At any moment, the lunatics he’s empowered could upset the asylum anew. There’s no guarantee that, by the time you read this, he hasn’t already been deposed.

Admittedly, I find it difficult to muster much sympathy for McCarthy; perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing that compels me to view him, however sullenly, as a pathetically tragic figure—a man whose deep yearnings to be accepted brought him to this Faustian bargain, where he’ll hold a gavel while the most unruly members of his caucus hold a sword of Damocles over his head. There are hard lessons ahead for McCarthy, who will get a crash course in the dysfunctional nature of his own party in short order. For the rest of us, we are about to witness a staggering contrast in leadership: Never in our history will there have been successive speakers with as pronounced differences as McCarthy and his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi. And by the time the end of this Congress draws near, the GOP may rue not having a leader more like her.

True, honest, and effective leaders don’t worry about being liked and accepted. To my mind, successful leaders never ask others to pursue a venture that they wouldn’t pursue themselves. Good stewards are respectfully honest, even when hard truths threaten the tidy convenience of relationships, even when it might cost you money or a vote. Good leaders demonstrate commitment but aren’t afraid to be flexible—and they certainly must demonstrate that they care about others. Former President Barack Obama has always bested Trump in this regard. Pelosi also passes these tests.

In fairness, McCarthy’s insatiable need to be liked and accepted isn’t unique within the GOP’s caste; the same psychology is evident in Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, New York Representative Elise Stefanik, and their newest groupthink pundit, Elon Musk, among others.  

But Pelosi never gave a toss about being well liked and accepted. First elected to the U.S. House in 1987, she intuitively understood that conflict was inevitable in the male-dominated business of politics and that a lack of cagey instincts would render her easy prey not only for right-wingers but also the antiquity-minded “make America great again” Reagan Democrats (some of whom became President Bill Clinton’s Reagan Democrats). Pelosi understood that she needed to earn respect with hard work, consistency, and occasional administrative shows of force. These, Pelosi masterfully juggled: She spent her career doing what she set out to do, not asking for permission to do it.

Naturally, she earned a healthy serving of sexist ire. But the GOP’s antipathy for Pelosi runs deeper than that: Republicans scorn Pelosi because the esteem she’s earned from others is genuine. Republican politicians—and McCarthy especially—carry the weight of knowing that they aren’t even respected by most of their own voters. If McCarthy retired tomorrow, nary a human being would lament, “Oh, I so miss Kevin.” For the Republican base, the red meat of the various culture wars is the thing; there will always be another zookeeper.

Republicans know that McCarthy isn’t Pelosi’s equal. She is probably the most qualified member of Congress never to mount a presidential run. What McCarthy brings to the table is a warm body and a propensity for pliability. I wouldn’t expect McCarthy’s tenure to be as accomplished, and I doubt many in Republican circles do either. When I was myself a card-carrying member of the GOP/Trump cult, even some of the politically traumatized/Robert E. Lee–loving/machine-gun-owning/Ivy League–educated Republicans I often congregated with were apt to make a begrudging acknowledgment: What a thing would it be if the GOP had a Pelosi.

But it can never be—at least not the way the Republican Party is currently constructed; for no one person is currently in charge of the GOP. This is not a party that’s guided by the steady hand of a “who”; it’s been left to the unbridled whims of a thousand “whats.” At one moment it’s being pushed by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, racial animus, or paranoia over traditional marriage and sexual relationships giving way to some “other.” There are competing hierarchies bucking for dominance, Christian theocrats, and white supremacists demanding succor. And always there are paranoid and politically traumatizing mythologies—anti-vaxxers and other Covid conspiracy theorists, “critical race theory” fearmongers, and culture-war grifters, elbowing each other for space. Pelosi earned a fair share of criticism, even from inside her tent, but that tent never grew unruly, and rarely was anyone confused about who was in charge.

McCarthy’s win will be a Pyrrhic victory, comparatively; any Republican victory is, at the moment, a loss for the nation and an adulteration of the integrity of the congressional body. But what McCarthy is enduring is a scale model of what’s to come: Headed into 2024, most Republican candidates, nationwide, will have to go to similar lengths to be liked and accepted by the basest voters among us. This is why McCarthy says, straight-facedly, that the January 6 insurrection was a “legitimate political discourse,” even though he knew full damn well that some of his colleagues could have been murdered that day, even though he is absolutely cognizant of the fact that Trump bears responsibility for inciting the mob.

This is why Trump, DeSantis, and anyone else who aspires to move up in the Republican Party must cautiously and balletically temper their rhetoric so as to keep neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Covid deniers—who think the vaccine, if it doesn’t kill us first, will turn us into infertile, muck-blooded half-breeds—in the fold. McCarthy desperately wants to be liked and accepted by the monster he created, but the monster eventually comes to close its hands around its creator’s throat.

And, indeed, the rules to which McCarthy has agreed permit the most monstrous members of his caucus to do so in dramatic, hasty effect whenever the mood suits them. Such a display will only be the short and shocking version of the strangulation that’s happening to the party as a whole. McCarthy, and this embarrassing speaker election, is but a model-in-miniature of the GOP’s terminal illness. Those opposing McCarthy are getting a head start on the inevitable realignment, and further splintering, of the party of Lincoln (who wouldn’t win a Republican primary anywhere in the country today). But the trouble is, this is who won majority control of the House. And so we’re all in for a rough ride until such time as the American people mercy-kill the Republican Party once and for all.