McCarthy: Hard right takes its toll

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, foreground, with House Speaker John Boehner. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Now the question becomes: What’s next?

He had texted them birthday greetings; he had gone into their districts to campaign for them and raise money; he probably would have washed the dishes.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Last week, California’s affable and handsome Kevin McCarthy ended his once seemingly inevitable march toward becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

There was the nagging worry: would it be worth it?  How would he emerge from it all?

“I’m not the one,” the Bakersfield Republican told his divided and ornery Republican colleagues.  Witnesses at the closed-door Republican meeting said he spoke so softly he could barely be heard.  Reporters hovering outside the room in the Capitol complex said at least a few of the Republicans emerged from the meeting weeping.

So what’s in store for McCarthy?

For now, California’s most powerful Republican stays as House majority leader. But rumors abound in California. Does he run for governor in 2018? Does he become a lobbyist? Does he leave Congress next year?

It became apparent that the moderate McCarthy was headed for trouble when members of the conservative bloc of about 40 House Republicans began leaking complaints that McCarthy was not sufficiently conservative and would not be an effective firewall against the schemes of President Barack Obama. House conservatives have also mounted a campaign to weaken the powers of the speaker, talking about “bottom up” governance.

Ironically, many of those same ultraconservatives were inspired by the Tea Party rhetoric of McCarthy, former GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan in “Young Guns,” a 2010 book they authored to extol the evils of Democrats and the failure of get-along, go-along Republicans. In the end, they decided McCarthy and others in the GOP leadership were selling them out.

How influential he will remain after bowing out of the speakership contest remains to be seen.

“Let’s stop blaming the Republican far right for what is happening to the party,” wrote the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. “The party leadership brought this upon itself with phony promises and incendiary but empty rhetoric. The right wing, at least, has the courage of its convictions.”

“Permit me to channel the Freedom Caucus crowd that has every right to tell its leaders: You betrayed us. You talked a good game when you recruited us. We said the harshest things about President Obama, and you didn’t rebuke us. You claimed to be as alienated from the old GOP as we were,” Dionne wrote.

As the opposition mounted last week, McCarthy went into ruminative mode; he talked with his family and his staff.  His friends told him that the maneuvering and persuading he was doing to cement his candidacy as speaker were changing him, and not for the better.  There was the nagging worry: would it be worth it?  How would he emerge from it all?  Would he have a short, unhappy reign and emerge seriously damaged by failure?  There were even rumors about his personal conduct. All of it was fed into the equation and the ultimate decision was No.

Although he decided he didn’t want to go through the agony of trying to ride herd on a fractured and quarrelsome Republican Conference, there have so far been no public signals that McCarthy has ceased to be an ambitious pol.  He is only 50, with a safe seat and numerous friendships among his Republican House colleagues.

Paul Ryan, another man in a hurry, has stepped back from his flat refusals of a few days ago to be speaker, but he is still reluctant.

McCarthy still occupies a position of power in the House.  As majority leader, he is still in a position to be influential in moving, or not moving, legislation.  But how influential he will remain after bowing out of the speakership contest remains to be seen.  The House majority leader position is not usually out front dealing with national media — House majority leaders work behind the scenes, keeping the troops in line.  But  his giftwrapped-to-Hillary gaffe declaring that the House’s Benghazi investigating committee had resulted in lowering her poll numbers may echo through the coming months to McCarthy’s detriment.  And while McCarthy, now out of the full glare of the media, ponders his future with the pressure off, he is at least somewhat damaged by a feeling among some of his colleagues that he was not quite ready for prime time.

McCarthy’s decision put an end to what had been a quick rise to the top ranks of House leadership.  He had only arrived in 2006 from a deep-red Bakersfield district.  The man-in-a-hurry reputation had been earned in California, where McCarthy arrived at the Assembly in 2002.  During his four quick Sacramento years before going to Congress, he became the Republicans’ minority leader.

McCarthy’s decision to abandon his speakership bid ends speculation that California would soon boast the two most powerful positions in the House — Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco as the Democratic minority leader and McCarthy as the Republican speaker.  McCarthy’s opposition to Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-speed rail project had for several days become a top subject of speculation up and down the state.  Having a majority leader against your project is one thing; having the speaker against it is quite another.

Right now, with the House in a 10-day recess, McCarthy and Boehner have been attempting to convince Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, to run for the speakership.  But while Ryan, another man in a hurry, has stepped back from his flat refusals of a few days ago, he is still reluctant to take the job, probably because he enjoys the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and the hazards of today’s speakership may prove a handicap to any future Ryan plans.

Or perhaps any future McCarthy plans.

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