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Weaker Speaker

Kevin McCarthy Is Not Good at This

The “budget” passed by House Republicans is terrible for the party politically.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Kevin McCarthy being mad about something in 2021

The debt limit bill narrowly passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Wednesday evening contains few surprises. The measure is cruel and draconian; it is full of deep and devastating cuts to a series of essential federal programs. It slashes aid for health care, education, and veterans; it cuts taxes for the rich. Its main purpose is to own the libs: It cuts $200 million in maintenance to Nancy Pelosi’s district in California because, well, that’s what Republicans are there to do.  

One reason this bill has ended up being particularly bad is that Republicans are currently having to bend over backward to pretend that they’re not actually interested in cutting Medicare and Social Security—just Medicaid. Donald Trump threw a wrench into the party’s decades-long effort to roll back the New Deal by acknowledging that doing so was wildly unpopular—and by making preserving those programs a litmus test in the budding Republican primary. (For what it’s worth, Trump, like all Republicans, isn’t serious about maintaining them either; unlike them, he realizes that actively trying to eviscerate them is bad politics.) 

But Republicans had to make a big show, play-acting as protectors of these popular programs. So, in order to make the math work, steep cuts were required pretty much everywhere except in Medicare and Social Security—hence the billions slashed from veterans programs, for instance. Eleventh-hour changes made the bill even worse. Tougher Medicaid work requirements on a faster timetable were added, and ethanol subsidies (to please corn state Republicans, of course) were restored in order to secure its passage. 

But mostly the bill is bad because it couldn’t be any other way. To even begin negotiating with the White House, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy needed something on the table—even if President Joe Biden is (rightly) insisting that he will not negotiate over a budget and a debt limit increase at the same time. As a result, we’re left with this Frankenstein’s monster: a bill that is chock full of garbage meant to appease enough of McCarthy’s Republican colleagues for it to pass—and the end result is a measure that doesn’t really solve the original problem and creates new hardships, in the service of just doing something that will piss liberals off. 

It’s also the case that it has no chance of being signed into law by the president. For that matter, it has little to no chance of passing the Senate—though the absence of Dianne Feinstein has once again elevated the West Virginia senator to the position of Grand Vizier. Regardless of what might happen between now and its getting nuked on Biden’s desk, Republicans have replaced a debt ceiling bill with a messaging bill. And the message it sends doesn’t cast a flattering light on the GOP. 

And that’s not how this is supposed to work. Messaging bills are typically executed with one goal in mind: Make your party look good and the other party look bad. They are symbolic and inextricably political gestures, with an ultimate aim of making a pitch pitch to voters, particularly those in swing states and districts: Look at what the libs took from you; give us an even bigger majority and look what we will do for you! But no one was exactly clamoring for steep and immiserating cuts to vital government programs. 

McCarthy has been more or less open about the fact that this is not a real bill. “This bill is to get us to the negotiations,” he said on Tuesday. “It is not the final provisions, and there’s a number of members who will vote for it going forward to say there are some concerns they have with it. But they want to make sure the negotiation goes forward because we are sitting at $31 trillion of debt.” 

This bill may get the Republican Party to those negotiations over raising the debt limit, which must be done by early June or the United States will face potentially calamitous economic consequences. It’s hard to assess what the outcome of potential negotiations will be, especially since the White House’s position is “Send a clean debt limit bill, or pound sand.” What is clear, however, is that this bill is a disaster for Republicans. 

It is not being treated that way everywhere. The New York Times’ Carl Hulse, who should know better, described it as “a narrow win but a win for Speaker Kevin McCarthy nonetheless.” Politico’s Playbook, meanwhile, declared that this was a coronation of sorts, an occasion in which McCarthy “proved his naysayers wrong.” I suppose if you squint a certain way, you can see it, but these laurels should actually be seen as participation trophies. 

Sure, if McCarthy had failed to get anything across the line he would have looked completely incompetent, even by the standards of recent Republican House leaders. Nevertheless, a bill filled with devastating cuts and manifestly unpopular positions is arguably worse than getting nothing done at all. The GOP passed a messaging bill that provides Democrats with the better message, something that they can use to hurt the GOP in swing districts for the next two years; a bill that shows that Republicans’ ultimate goal is to gut health care and food stamps and education—and even veterans benefits. There is no universe in which a clean bill, raising the debt ceiling and moving on, isn’t more politically advantageous for the GOP. 

The whole sorry episode has only shown that Kevin McCarthy just isn’t good at this. It’s never been entirely clear why he wanted to be speaker of the House in the first place. It’s always been clear, however, that he is not up to the task. To gain the gavel, McCarthy had to make a series of humiliating, enfeebling concessions to his far-right flank that more or less disempowered him. Now, put in a position where he needed to get something done, he once again had to cave to the same right flank—indeed, it was Matt Gaetz, who had previously relished holding back McCarthy’s ascendence to the speakership, who forced him to add more draconian Medicaid work requirements to the bill. 

McCarthy essentially wakes up every morning conscripted into a race to the bottom by those in his party with the worst political instincts and ideas. This should not be particularly surprising to McCarthy, but his abject supplication is nevertheless notable. This bill does not matter. It will not pass. It is not intended to pass. Republicans had an opportunity to aim a productive salvo at swing voters, the better to convince them that GOP majorities can deliver prosperity, and giving them some sign that the party was tacking back from the heights of extremism that alienated voters in the last midterm elections. Instead, the message being sent is that the party is all about owning the libs and slashing aid for veterans and the poor. The GOP can’t even fake being a party interested in governing anymore. That’s bad news for the man stuck presiding over this clown show.