Both men, House speaker John Boehner and House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, stood behind the pope on Thursday as he prepared to address a joint session of Congress. Boehner cried; McCarthy beamed.
The external contrast reflects a deeper difference between the two most powerful Republicans in Congress. McCarthy is social, upbeat, and optimistic. Boehner, as recently as last week, characterized his job this way: “Prisoners learn how to become prisoners, all right?”
Apparently not. On Friday morning, after Boehner told his conference that he would resign at the end of October, he announced his freedom to reporters. “It’s a wonderful day,” he said. Across town at the Omni Shoreham hotel, the conservative Family Research Council was hosting the Values Voter Summit, and the crowd erupted in cheers when it received the news. Somewhere on Capitol Hill, surely, Kevin McCarthy was smiling too.
Elected to Congress in 2006, the 50-year-old majority leader has risen through GOP ranks at lightning speed, shooting from chief deputy whip in 2009 to whip the following year, before ascending to majority leader after Eric Cantor’s surprise primary defeat in 2014. In a press conference on Monday, Boehner gave McCarthy his implicit endorsement, telling reporters he would make an “excellent speaker.”
In the wake of Boehner’s resignation, McCarthy is thus far the only candidate certain to contend for the speakership. Other names — Jeb Hensarling, Peter Roskam, Jim Jordan — are being bandied about, but none have yet committed to challenging the majority leader. Paul Ryan, who would be his most formidable challenger, has already ruled out a run. It remains to be seen whether a leadership fight will unfold, but if it does, McCarthy will be in it.
During his five years in leadership, Boehner has insisted that the right flank of his caucus was demanding he pick fights Republicans couldn’t win. Both he and McCarthy have emphasized the importance of gaining and preserving a Republican majority over securing ideological victories or putting forward conservative alternatives to Democratic legislation. Conservatives have in turn accused their leadership of caving too easily and even of being a tool of the Democratic party. Texas senator Ted Cruz once said Boehner will “presumably land in a cushy K Street job after joining with the Democrats to implement all of President Obama’s priorities.”
#share#Some reports indicate that conservatives, particularly the 40 to 50 members of the rebellious House Freedom Caucus that has made Boehner’s life so difficult, could warm to McCarthy even though he remains ideologically opaque. Why? Surely, the specter of Boehner’s forced resignation, and the role they played in precipitating it, are things they won’t let McCarthy soon forget.
Many of them also owe him thanks for their jobs. McCarthy, whom Boehner appointed the GOP’s chief recruiter for the 2010 midterm elections, helped shepherd 87 new GOP members into Congress that year. A good number of them have contributed to Boehner’s misery: Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Reid Ribble of Wisconsin. The list goes on.
#related#63 members of the 2010 class remain in the House, comprising a quarter of the Republican conference. (Others, like Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Colorado senator Cory Gardner, were elected to the Senate last year.) McCarthy has nurtured relationships with the 2010 class, which will prove useful in a run for speaker, a fact that Boehner has readily admitted. “Kevin probably has a better handle on the freshmen than anybody else here,” Boehner told the New York Times in 2011.
The same year, as majority whip, he made himself the unofficial social chair of the GOP conference, turning his Capitol Hill office into a funhouse for grown-ups, complete with a basketball hoop, granola bars, and booze. He schmoozed his colleagues constantly. “I want them living in this office,” he told the Times.
McCarthy has a good story, too. He opened a deli in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., with the $5,000 he won in the state lottery, and he used the profits to put himself through school. He learned much about politics from the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas, the hot-tempered lawmaker for whom he served as district director back in California. When Thomas announced his retirement in 2006, he endorsed McCarthy.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has said that John Boehner “just got worn out” by the constant onslaught of attacks against him. “Clearly, I think, Kevin McCarthy is the most likely next speaker,” Gingrich said.
Thomas, McCarthy’s old mentor, concurred. “I believe, if he wants to do it, he will have the support to be the next speaker,” he told the Bakersfield Californian. But he also offered a word of caution: “Being a member of the team is a whole lot easier than being the leader of the team.”
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.