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McCarthy In The Middle: How The Last ‘Young Gun’ Sought To Rebuild Conservative Trust As Pelosi Went Scorched Earth

Kevin McCarthy
Image CreditFederalist / Canva

Pelosi’s band of Democrats burned down the House. But Kevin McCarthy is standing in the rubble, and he’s making plans to rebuild.


It’s mid-September and Kevin McCarthy has baseball on the brain. 

Aaron Judge, he predicts, is “gonna set a record for home runs.” Plus, brags McCarthy, “he’s from the San Joaquin Valley.” The Yankees outfielder hails from Linden, California, 200 miles up Highway 99 from McCarthy’s hometown of Bakersfield. 

The Valley may be fertile, but it isn’t the California most Americans know unless they read John Steinbeck or listen to Buck Owens. McCarthy thinks the region exports plenty of talent alongside all those grapes. Judge, as the House minority leader sees him, is one of many high-achievers from the Valley — not unlike Frank Gifford, Earl Warren, and Merle Haggard (with whom McCarthy proudly shares a high school). 

From a stately leather chair in his office, McCarthy says people from the Valley, California’s forgotten heartland, “know we’re going to have to work harder.” 

“When people think of California, they think of Los Angeles or San Francisco,” he explains. Referencing “Grapes of Wrath,” McCarthy gestures with his hands to show where farmland nestles between mountain ranges. “This is where people went when things didn’t work right. But they can only make it by hard work,” he says, bursting with all the exuberance of a small-town mayor. 

The very next day, Judge beamed a pitch deep into left-center. It was his 60th home run of the season, tying Babe Ruth’s record. By October, he’d surpassed Roger Maris, hitting more home runs in a season than any other player in American League history.  

Uncharted Territory

McCarthy is on the precipice of history, too. Republicans are projected to win back the House of Representatives in a matter of weeks and the Boy from Bakersfield is expected to become speaker of the House — albeit speaker of a very different body than the one he first joined in 2006. You can chalk those differences up to radical changes ushered in by Nancy Pelosi and frenzied Trump-era Democrats. 

Though she’s from the same state, Pelosi represents San Francisco, a very different cultural crucible than the Central Valley. Where McCarthy is still fighting to earn respect, she is a media favorite, inspiring hagiographies and memes and naked devotion from the press corps. Now, even anti-establishment Republicans are likely to help elect an establishment fixture as the leader of their caucus, in no small part because of Pelosi’s scorched-earth tenure. McCarthy’s improbable path to the gavel is not one the legacy press is ready to tell. 

While he’s busy consolidating support, reporters are wondering, as Politico wrote earlier this year, whether McCarthy is “a great big dummy.” But if his speakership seems like a sure thing, that’s only because McCarthy is pulling off the political equivalent of a tightrope walk over the Grand Canyon, balancing the competing interests of a changing party without slipping into the abyss. 

Previously an ally of GOP establishment stalwarts such as John Boehner and Paul Ryan, McCarthy is on remarkably good terms with most of his caucus, including the GOP’s right flank. This is something of a feat for two reasons: First, neither the House Freedom Caucus nor Donald Trump is easy to please, and second, there’s no precedent for GOP leadership being able to placate both the establishment and its newer populist wing. Even after years in the House and a vice presidential run, former Speaker Paul Ryan never managed to strike this balance. Discontent with current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is growing. Unlike other members of the Republican establishment, McCarthy at least empathizes with the perspective of conservatives, having witnessed Pelosi’s dramatic escalation up close as her counterpart in the minority.

Back in 2015, it was the House Freedom Caucus that blocked McCarthy’s path to the speakership, paving the way for Ryan by forcing McCarthy to drop his bid. Many of the same people who are now generally unopposed to McCarthy preferred Ryan to him in the not-so-distant past. So what changed?

“I actually think it’s just different when you’re the leader,” says Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “I think because he was number two to Boehner and number two to Ryan, he just gets lumped in with those two individuals.”

“And when he got a chance to be a leader himself, it was different,” adds Jordan. “I think that’s a key.”

When asked if he’d learned anything from his friend Paul Ryan’s struggle to control the caucus, McCarthy doesn’t mind talking on the record — but doesn’t bash his predecessor either. “I really believe in constant improvement, right?” says McCarthy.

“I’ll give you a prime example,” he continues. “I tried for this job before and I didn’t make it. It was kind of my choice to pull back because I didn’t think the timing was right, for the whole conference. I’m a better member today because of that because I got more time as majority leader.”

The House Freedom Caucus might quibble over McCarthy’s characterization of his decision to drop out — having been blocked by a coalition that included future Trump officials such as Mark Meadows and Mick Mulvaney — but he’s spent the last half-decade courting Jordan and others. Even establishment archenemy Marjorie Taylor Greene is said to be on friendly terms with the lower chamber’s minority leader.

Jordan, who ran against McCarthy for the job back in 2018, is thrown around as a potential challenger this time around, too. But he’s eager to praise McCarthy heading into a potential Republican Congress. 

A senior Freedom Caucus staffer describes their warm relationship as “very much a quid pro quo,” arguing McCarthy “will make Jordan chairman of Judiciary in exchange for him blunting right-wing opposition to McCarthy’s speakership.”

At least so far, McCarthy’s internal critics are quiet, though that could change with the midterms out of the way. When it comes to Jordan, McCarthy moved quickly to bring the pro-Trump firebrand into his inner circle after Ryan retired. Their friendly relationship is a window into McCarthy’s leadership style. 

Building Bridges

Back to America’s pastime. Reflecting on lessons from Ryan’s tenure, McCarthy cites “Moneyball” in the same breath as “Good to Great,” another tome popular with the blue blazer crowd. “In ‘Good to Great,’ it tells you to put the right people on the bus,” he says. “You can have a lot of good people, but you can see a lot of times people fail.”

“Moneyball,” McCarthy adds. “I get a lot of great players, but they’re not there. How do you work in sync together?”

When McCarthy bested Jordan in the minority leader race four years ago, he remembers sticking his neck out to bring Jordan on as Oversight chair. He did this against the wishes of the committee, which McCarthy says “erupted” on him after Jordan presented. 

Jordan was working out when McCarthy called to ask him to come in. “You’ve got to stop. You’ve got to get over here,” the leader remembers saying. “You’re the best person for the job. You’ve got to put all this other stuff aside and you’ve got to do the job for the conference.”

To the skeptical committee, McCarthy says he insisted, “If this doesn’t work out, it’s my fault. But you just elected me leader. Let me lead.” 

Jordan, for his part, says, “What the Freedom Caucus appreciates is the way Kevin has been able to keep us together,” along with “the conservative positions he’s taken.” Without prompting, Jordan highlights a pivotal test of McCarthy’s mettle.

“I always point to back in 2019, going into that first impeachment, the conventional wisdom was every Democrat was going to vote to impeach President Trump, and a bunch of Republicans were going to join in,” remembers Jordan. “And after a four-month ordeal, where we just really, really worked together as a team, every Republican voted not to impeach. Some Democrats joined us, and one Democrat switched parties and became a Republican. So that just doesn’t happen unless you’re working together as you should as the Republican team.”

McCarthy also counts the first impeachment as a critical leadership moment for him and the GOP caucus.

“You learned in the first impeachment that they would use power. That they would stop to no end for their own political gain,” McCarthy reflects. “You’ve watched Pelosi do it before, but never to the extreme level that they had then. That they would lie. They’d create something.”

He continues: “Even as more information came out about the Russia dossier and how fake it was. Created from them. And they’d look into the camera and they’d say, ‘We have proof.’ And nothing. It was shocking to me.”

McCarthy says it became clear to House Republicans that what Democrats were doing to oppose Trump was destructive in ways that went far beyond ordinary political concerns. “They’re coming after everybody. It’s not just us, they’re coming after the voters. They’re coming after anyone who thinks differently than them,” he says. “They no longer respect a difference of opinion. This is a scary moment in America, and it’s only gotten worse.”

Enter Pelosi, the self-described “master legislator” who’s been in Congress for 35 years. After Democrats won the House during Donald Trump’s presidency, they embarked on a steady effort to undermine him that would forever change the body the party claimed to be protecting. This is Pelosi’s legacy, even if it’s not clear to Official Washington quite yet. 

No Man’s Land

Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute (she also writes a tech column for The Federalist) describes changes to precedent set during Pelosi’s latest speakership as “titanic.”

“With regard to House rules, Democrats neutered the motion to recommit, which was a hugely massive change and basically stripped the one remaining procedural right of the House minority that had any teeth,” she says. “They also gutted the motion to vacate so no one could do to Pelosi what the Freedom Caucus did to Boehner.”

“With regard to precedent, where do you even start?” Bovard continues. “They used a vote of the whole House to vote Republicans off committee. That’s never been done before. Parties usually police committee membership on their own. Pelosi also denied Republicans their picks to serve on the Jan. 6 Committee and appointed her own Republican choices.”

Bovard, a longtime congressional staffer whose job now involves training Capitol Hill staff in procedure, sees one instructive parallel. “Joe Cannon, for whom the Cannon House Office Building was named, is historically viewed as the most tyrannical speaker of the House in history,” she says. “Pelosi is a modern-day Joe Cannon on steroids.”

To the media, of course, that makes the speaker a #girlboss. But if McCarthy gives Democrats a taste of the same medicine, it’ll likely be greeted with less enthusiasm. 

“There are a lot of people in the caucus, I think, that want blood,” Bovard explains, previewing what a Speaker McCarthy might face come January.

The senior House Freedom Caucus staffer agrees with that assessment. “McCarthy will have to offer some heads,” they said, referring to this likely course of action as “token assassinations on committees” and, derisively, as “low-hanging fruit.” 

Asked about the new precedents set by Pelosi’s Jan. 6 Committee, McCarthy replies, “The Dems have changed this body.”

What’s a Republican speaker to do? The media will ignore or justify Democrats’ efforts to shatter norms and remake the House, but Republicans are furious about the changes, and so are their voters. 

McCarthy says he intends to boot Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both Californians, from the Intelligence Committee and remove Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from Foreign Affairs. 

Pushed on how he might use subpoena power in hypothetical investigations of Hunter Biden or the Department of Justice, given Democrats’ decision to press for Republicans’ phone records, McCarthy responds, “Our role is oversight, and we’re not going to sit back and not do it.”

“Why wouldn’t you want to know where Covid originated?” he asks. “Why would you not want to know what happened in Afghanistan? Why wouldn’t you want to know why the DOJ went after parents?” 

At least now, there are some limits to what might happen right out of the gate. Will his agenda include impeachment trials of cabinet officials such as Merrick Garland and Alejandro Mayorkas? McCarthy says, “Look, everybody starts with impeachment. I think we just spent two years showing where the Democrats made it all political. If something arises that occasions impeachments, we’ll do it. But that’s not where we start with. We’re not making it for political gain.” 

Is that enough for McCarthy to sail through to the speakership without meaningful opposition? Bovard says that while she doesn’t think the House Freedom Caucus “right now has the capacity” to launch a challenge to McCarthy, they could “refuse him their votes if he didn’t give them what they wanted,” listing off potential issues such as bringing back the motion to vacate.

Another obstacle could be Jim Jordan, who Bovard observes, “doesn’t want to do antitrust.” 

This is not a superficial quibble. In October, antitrust legislation meant to curtail Big Tech pitted members of the Freedom Caucus such as Jordan and Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., against one another. For movement activists such as Bovard and members such as Buck, antitrust is something of a litmus test, a line in the sand between the party before Trump and the party after it. 

McCarthy, for his part, says antitrust is on the table. The senior House Freedom Caucus source says, “There are reasonable antitrust reforms that can get over the line, can unite the conference, and actually have a meaningful impact on Big Tech’s business model.”

But, they contend, if Jordan doesn’t want to do antitrust, “McCarthy views Jordan as key to speakership.”

Asked what would happen if a Speaker McCarthy buckled on antitrust, Jon Schweppe of the American Principles Project replied, “Our voters are going to expect legislative action to prevent this from ever happening again, so GOP leadership needs to recognize that political reality and deliver results.”

“Republicans had two years in the minority to come up with a plan to stop the censorship and rein in these powerful companies,” Schweppe added. “If the GOP fails to make headway on these priorities, it would be a huge disappointment and would invite serious criticism and blowback from not only activists, but potentially even from Donald Trump and other Republican candidates seeking the presidency.”

McCarthy cited Clinton-era welfare reform when asked whether he’d pursue any other big-ticket bipartisan thrusts, listing the southern border and energy issues as other possibilities.

“To get the Freedom Caucus,” though, “he’s going to have to give them certain things,” Bovard cautions.

“Even the old institutional guys are like, ‘We’ve never been here before,’” she explains. “I don’t think people realize how much Democrats have burned the place down. It’s just unrecognizable.”

“We’re in no man’s land, so McCarthy’s got to be willing to wield that power back at them or it’s never going to stop,” says Bovard. 

On the right, skepticism remains about whether McCarthy and the GOP leadership are up to the task. “These guys just don’t seem to have the fighting spirit to take on the left,” laments the Freedom Caucus source.

Boy from Bakersfield

The story of McCarthy’s life in some ways seems to reflect his hometown. Bakersfield is named after Col. Thomas Baker who came from the Midwest to mine gold. According to Baker’s biographer, “In less than 10 years, he had risen from a poor man with only foresight, ambition and energy as his capital. He had accomplished the impossible: reclaiming a swamp wasteland and making of it a fertile valley.”

McCarthy’s rise to power also started modestly. Before politics, he paid his way through community college by flipping used cars.  For an aspiring Republican, this proved to be a lesson in excessive government regulation — in most states licensing requirements prevent you from buying and selling cars the way you can sell almost any other good.

“I’d buy and sell cars and flip them to pay my way through,” recalls McCarthy. “It’s illegal, but I don’t know why when I’m doing it, right? Because I just think ‘why would that even be illegal?’” 

The “grandson of a cattle rancher and son of a fireman” later won $5,000 in the lottery, invested in a restaurant, and then opened a deli. He worked for his local congressman. He was elected a trustee to the Kern County Community College District. Then, in 2002, he won a seat in the California Assembly. 

McCarthy, improbably, became the first freshman legislator ever elected as Assembly leader. He says that wasn’t his plan.

“I never sat back and started out to be leader,” McCarthy remembers of his time in the state house. “What happened was I was in a room, but I don’t sit back to be quiet, right? I come up with an idea. I devised this whole strategy in a fight with the Democrats. And we won and we hadn’t won in a long time. They turned around the room and said, ‘You should be the leader.’ No one ever thought a freshman could be leader, but I got elected September, in my first year.” 

He was then elected to Congress in 2006, served as chief deputy whip, majority whip, and House leader. With his wife Judy, McCarthy is the father of Connor and Meghan, now in their twenties. McCarthy says his entrepreneurial background taught him “you gotta be willing to take a risk,” a lesson he applies to politics.

“Why go along the same way? Like, ‘Well, we do the exact same things if we’re able to take the majority now.’”

“That’s why you constantly improve,” he says. “Learn from your challenges, and the others.”

In 2010, McCarthy was one of the subjects of “Young Guns” a much talked about book featuring testimonies from Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and McCarthy, framing the trio as a “new generation of conservative leaders.” The cover itself is an amusing relic of a bygone era, when three middle-aged dudes with orthodox Republican politics could convincingly make a claim to promulgating “fresh ideas.” You’d be forgiven for confusing it with an ad for Men’s Wearhouse or personal injury lawyers.

The gang wouldn’t last long. Cantor was ousted just four years later by a more conservative challenger in a primary upset almost nobody saw coming. Ryan went on to become Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, then retired in 2018, never having mastered the art of leading in a party run by Donald Trump — and his voters. That left McCarthy as the last “Young Gun” standing.

Making Commitments

Unlike McConnell, McCarthy had no qualms about releasing an agenda ahead of this year’s midterms. In conservative circles, the “Commitment to America” he rolled out in September was met with predictable ambivalence. Tucker Carlson said it was “fine” but ultimately lacked anything “real.” Patrick Brown of the Ethics and Public Policy Center criticized the plan’s “generic talking points,” wishing it had more closely resembled a 12-page pro-family agenda released by the Republican Study Committee and Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana. 

After Republican Glenn Youngkin upset Democrat Terry McAuliffe in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race, having run an education-heavy campaign, McCarthy sought to make a splash by unveiling the GOP’s “Parents Bill of Rights.” Clearly, there was political gold to be mined — and serious work to be done too. Here, “Young Guns” becomes more and more of an important mile marker.

The book reflects a Republican Party very much in the shadow of the Great Recession, attempting to ride the Tea Party wave with endless references to “fiscal conservatism” and “limited government.” Social issues are rarely broached, as was typical of the GOP establishment at the time. 

Pushed on whether Republicans in the era of “Young Guns” missed the culture war, McCarthy concedes, “There are things we could have missed.”

“But,” he adds, “you’ve never seen the Democrats go so far.”

“I think Democrats wouldn’t have thought back then they would do the things they have done, from CRT to the way they run this body,” McCarthy theorizes. 

He argues Democrats’ decision to downplay and even encourage the violent riots of 2020 was another turning point that will define how Republicans lead next year.  “They wouldn’t do anything about it,” McCarthy marvels. “They thought it was okay burning a church, just pounding. And they still think that’s fine.”

Democrats would counter that Republicans never thought the host of “Celebrity Apprentice” would be their champion. They wouldn’t have predicted Stormy Daniels or tweets about Kim Jong Un’s button. The similarity between these oversights is that both parties missed voters’ shifting sentiments. The difference is that one party was forced to adjust while the other turned inward and consolidated more power in Washington.

If Republicans win in November, they’ll select a speaker with a voice vote upon convening the new Congress in early January. That person will inherit the power Pelosi amassed.

A Politico report in September suggested the Freedom Caucus is already prepared to vote with establishment Republicans and elect McCarthy as speaker. This may reflect attitudes now but there’s time for those to change. The senior House Freedom Caucus source says McCarthy has “played his cards well,” but adds, “I don’t think anybody thinks Trump is in love with Kevin.

“I just don’t think there’ll be anything organized until after the election,” the source adds. “The idea that it’s done and dusted,” they say, “I think is ridiculous.”

But standing in the wreckage of Pelosi’s tenure in Congress and her party’s reaction to Trump, McCarthy isn’t worried about potential challengers. “I’ve had people push and do different things,” he says. “But if you’re able to be running for speaker, that means all you’ve ever done is win. And I don’t think you change the coach then.”

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