Whoever wins Thursday’s leadership elections had better enjoy their new positions, because they could be snatched back five months from now.
Disillusionment runs deep in today’s House Republican Conference. Members across the ideological spectrum are frustrated with the policy-making process under Speaker John Boehner and tired of the feuding between factions. Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss provided an opportunity to address both issues by bringing fresh blood into the leadership and pressing something of a reset button.
But Thursday’s election is unlikely to calm the waters. In fact, things might get a whole lot rockier with November’s conference elections looming on the horizon.
Conservatives know they’re about to come up short. Kevin McCarthy, the current majority whip, is poised to become majority leader, and Rep. Steve Scalise is the odds-on favorite to replace him as whip. While plenty of conservatives like Scalise and view him as a nice addition, a Boehner-McCarthy-Scalise team hardly constitutes the shake-up they were dreaming about when Cantor went down.
“We’re falling apart. This country’s falling apart,” said Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona. “We need someone with bold leadership who can engage coalitions and lead by example.… I don’t see that.”
It’s not just the frustration of conservatives that ensures a competitive slate of intra-conference elections in November; it’s a feeling among many Republicans that now isn’t the time to wage divisive internal campaigns, or demonstrate how much discontent exists within the conference about McCarthy’s lackluster performance as whip.
Of course, whether someone will step forward who has the political juice to actually pull off a November upset of existing leadership is a key unknown. For now, there has been little more than teasing from conservative darlings like Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, and no real willingness to commit.
“We could show all the warts on Kevin McCarthy, or engage in some contentious [leadership] election,” one House Republican said. “But we don’t want to get to the point where voters will say, ‘If they can’t even elect a leader for themselves, how can they lead the country?’ ”
Indeed, McCarthy in particular has a lot to prove between now and November if he wants to keep the leader’s job.
He is popular personally throughout the conference, as illustrated by the commitments he secured to put the majority leader race away quickly. But McCarthy has a problem: The support he’s getting from plenty of members won’t last unless they see discernible improvement.
“You have to judge whether or not you promote somebody based on their past performance,” said Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, an outspoken conservative. “And I think every member has to ask themselves: Has he been a stellar whip?”
Asked to answer his own question, Salmon replied: “No, he has not been a stellar whip.”
Many members would not speak for attribution on whether McCarthy’s work as whip warrants a boost to majority leader. But there was widespread acknowledgment—even among his friends—that this promotion is based on popularity and not job performance.
“I’ve seen situations where Kevin has said, ‘This is a self-whip. If you have a problem, come see me.’ That’s just lazy,” said one House Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There is no reason to have that embarrassment of something coming to the floor without knowing that the votes are there.”
Those instances have been plentiful since Republicans took back the majority in 2010.
In the past year alone there have been several: the defeat of the original farm bill, which appeared to leave GOP leadership dumbfounded; the last-second decision to pull a transportation and housing appropriations bill from the floor because leaders suddenly realized they lacked the votes to pass it; and the initial defeat on the floor of what had been billed as a bipartisan measure to soften the Affordable Care Act language for insurers covering people who work outside of the United States. (The bill failed on a suspension vote, but later passed when brought up under a different rule.)
Moreover, there have been multiple occasions when Republican leaders have had to rely almost exclusively on Democratic votes to get bills passed—the Violence Against Women Act, Hurricane Sandy relief, and the deal last October to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government among them.
How much of that blame falls on McCarthy is debatable. But in addition to concerns about his abilities of persuasion, there are also questions about his attention to detail and grasp of the nuances of legislation.
To be fair, when Republicans took back the House in 2010 McCarthy was handed perhaps the toughest job in leadership: whipping the votes of unpredictable tea-party lawmakers. He has been tasked with building coalitions between blocs of House Republicans who not only think differently, but in many cases simply don’t like each other. And for that reason, some colleagues grade his performance on a curve.
“I think he did the best he could under the circumstances,” said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who cochairs the “Tuesday Group” of moderates. “The challenge for the leadership, including Kevin, is that we have some members whose capacity for governance isn’t always there. And they can’t get [to] ‘yes.’ That makes the entire leadership’s job harder—especially that of the whip.”
Still, McCarthy is part of a leadership team that many members feel has failed to unite the conference and rally Republicans around a common agenda. And that, as much as anything he has done or not done individually, disqualifies him for a promotion in the eyes of some Republicans.
“I like Kevin; I think he’s a great guy,” Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida said Wednesday. “He said today that there was stuff he would do differently [if elected leader]. But those things should have been changed already; he should have been fighting leadership if he disagreed with something.”
In a sign of their disapproval with the results expected Thursday, some conservatives are now openly discussing the “Gosar Theory”—named for the Arizona representative—that goes something like this: Assuming McCarthy wins, they will vote for current Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam to become whip. That way, GOP leadership will be loaded with moderate, establishment-backed Republicans—and conservatives can spend the next five months scheming to clean house and get rid of the entire team.
“If there’s going to be a change, then I want change now,” Gosar said, emphasizing his support of Raul Labrador for majority leader. “But if it’s the status quo, then I want the status quo all the way down.”
This article appears in the June 19, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as GOP Leaders Shouldn’t Get Too Comfortable.