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If there was any hope that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would emerge as the “Speaker We Need” in the Republican minority, it was dashed this week.
On Thursday, McCarthy channeled his inner mean girl and kicked Representative Jody Hice (R-Ga.) off the coveted House Armed Services Committee for the very serious and intolerable offense of—wait for it—voting against McCarthy for minority leader.
The New Boss Is the Same as the Old Boss
McCarthy’s move recalls the heavy-handed tactics of former Speaker John Boehner, now a marijuana lobbyist, who famously stripped Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) from his priority committee assignments for voting against GOP leadership priorities.
Meadows was later reinstated on his committee when the move was found to be in violation of the committee’s rules. Boehner, you may recall, was later ousted as speaker by Meadows and other House conservatives, in part because of his penchant for retribution against his own conference.
McCarthy, it appears, is taking a page out of Boehner’s book. But, given the makeup of his conference—and their status as the House minority—it makes even less sense.
Hice is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, a group of House conservatives which steadily has grown in influence since its founding in 2015. Hice, in particular, is well-liked by his colleagues across the Republican conference, and viewed as steady, authentic, and kind. A warrior for his principles, to be sure, but a happy one.
One of his best friends in the conference happens to be Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former chair of the House Freedom Caucus, and a dark horse candidate for minority leader. Jordan is also a confidant of President Trump and is frequently summoned to the Oval Office for tête-à-têtes with the president. Last summer, Trump called Jordan up on stage during a rally in Ohio, praising him for his work and his courage.
Jordan’s bid to lead the House Republicans didn’t come close to toppling the ascendant, heir-apparent McCarthy. But it wasn’t supposed to. Rather, Jordan’s bid was designed to highlight the priorities important to conservatives—namely, that Congress take such radical steps as keeping their campaign promises, or, as Jordan put it, “do what we said we would do.”
For this, he was roundly dismissed by his establishment colleagues.
But there are those in the Republican conference loyal to Jordan, as well as to his message. Hice is one of them. And for casting his vote for Jordan over McCarthy, he was making clear an authentic message over the hedging and dodging of the status quo.
And for that, McCarthy made sure Hice felt the heat, following through this week on his reported threat to punish Hice for his vote. Voters who support the message Hice was trying to send should understand the message McCarthy is now sending.
Pettiness Does Not a Sound Strategy Make
If McCarthy is doing this for any reason other than petty revenge politics, it’s unclear.
Internecine infighting does not serve a minority party well. The most effective House minorities are those which are unified in their messaging and policy priorities, cutting a clear alternative to the majority—in this case, the Democrats.
Upon taking the role of minority leader, McCarthy appeared to understand this, publicly pledging to “focus not on retribution but on building a more perfect union.”
By targeting Hice, McCarthy has chosen to elevate the childish and unproductive politics he decried a mere two weeks ago. In other words, McCarthy said one thing, and then did the opposite.
A Growing Conservative Influence
But McCarthy’s move is a head-scratcher for more than just its brazen pettiness. It’s also strategically stupid.
In moving to the House minority, the Republican conference has shrunk in size. But the conservative wing of the conference has grown. The House Freedom Caucus now represents around 17 percent of House Republicans; in other words, one out of every six House Republicans now align themselves with the conservative caucus.
Making adversaries of a significant portion of the conference for no other reason than paranoid speculation makes McCarthy look weak, as well as short-sighted.
But more than that, it makes him look incapable of leading a conference that must rely on him as a capable messenger of the party’s priorities. And the party, in this case, includes the president. McCarthy has not shown anything other than a rhetorical interest in Trump’s wall, nor has he propounded a coherent agenda for Republicans to combat messaging from the Left, particularly in the midst of a shutdown.
Rather, McCarthy is wasting his time crafting defenestration techniques to oust his political enemies from their committees, a strategy that, given the makeup of his conference, is sure to backfire.
If House Republicans are to emerge from the wilderness of the minority, they need a strong and focused leader—one who is not threatened when individual members decide to have minds of their own. McCarthy either can be that leader, or he can continue to waste his energy on dividing his conference with petty, vindictive, and paranoid politics.
Should he choose the latter route, House Republicans are headed for a long winter.
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