Ross Douthat: Kevin McCarthy has a rare quality for a Republican House Speaker

(Kenny Holston | The New York Times) House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) after the House passed the debt limit bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 31, 2023. McCarthy's enthusiasm for the actual vote-counting, handholding work required of his position, and his lack of both Gingrichian egomania and get-me-out-of-here impatience, was key to the debt-limit deal, Ross Douthat writes.

Among the various reassessments of Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after his successful debt-ceiling negotiations, the one with the widest implications belongs to Matthew Continetti, who writes in The Washington Free Beacon that “McCarthy’s superpower is his desire to be speaker. He likes and wants his job.”

If you hadn’t followed American politics across the past few decades, this would seem like a peculiar statement: What kind of House speaker wouldn’t want the job?

But part of what has gone wrong with American institutions lately is the failure of important figures to regard their positions as ends unto themselves. Congress, especially, has been overtaken by what Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute describes as a “platform” mentality, where ambitious House members and senators treat their offices as places to stand and be seen — as talking heads, movement leaders, future presidents — rather than as roles to inhabit and opportunities to serve.

On the Republican side, this tendency has taken several forms, from Newt Gingrich’s yearning to be a Great Man of History, to Ted Cruz’s ambitious grandstanding in the Barack Obama years, to the emergence of Donald Trump-era performance artists such as Marjorie Taylor Greene. And the party’s congressional institutionalists, from dealmakers such as John Boehner to policy mavens such as Paul Ryan, have often been miserable-seeming prisoners of the talking heads, celebrity brands and would-be presidents.

This dynamic seemed likely to imprison McCarthy as well, but he has found a different way of dealing with it: He has invited some of the bomb throwers into the legislative process, trying to turn them from platform-seekers into legislators by giving them a stake in governance, and so far, he has been rewarded with crucial support from figures such as Greene and Thomas Massie, the quirky Kentucky libertarian. And it’s clear that part of what makes this possible is McCarthy’s enthusiasm for the actual vote-counting, hand-holding work required of his position, and his lack of both Gingrichian egomania and get-me-out-of-here impatience.

But McCarthy isn’t operating in a vacuum. The Joe Biden era has been good for institutionalism generally, because the president himself seems to understand and appreciate the nature of his office more than Obama ever did. As my colleague Carlos Lozada noted on our podcast this past week, in both the Senate and the White House, Obama was filled with palpable impatience at all the limitations on his actions. This showed up constantly in his negotiation strategy, where he had a tendency to use his own office as a pundit’s platform, lecturing the GOP on what they should support and thereby alienating Republicans from compromise in advance.

Whereas Biden, who actually liked being a senator, is clearly comfortable with quiet negotiation on any reasonable grounds, which is crucial to keeping the other side invested in a deal. And he’s comfortable, as well, with letting the spin machine run on both sides of the aisle, rather than constantly imposing his own rhetorical narrative on whatever bargain Republicans might strike.

The other crucial element in the healthier environment is the absence of what Cruz brought to the debt-ceiling negotiations under Obama — the kind of sweeping maximalism, designed to build a presidential brand, that turns normal horse-trading into an existential fight.

Expecting that kind of maximalism from Republicans, some liberals kept urging intransigence on Biden long after it became clear that what McCarthy wanted was more in line with previous debt-ceiling bargains. But McCarthy’s reasonability was sustainable because of the absence of a leading Republican senator playing Cruz’s absolutist part. Instead, the most notable populist Republican elected in 2022, J.D. Vance, has been busy looking for deals with populist Democrats on issues such as railroad safety and bank-executive compensation, or adding a constructive amendment to the debt-ceiling bill even though he voted against it — as if he, no less than McCarthy, actually likes and wants his current job.

One reason for the diminishment of Cruz-like grandstanders is the continued presence of Trump as the GOP’s personality-in-chief, to whose eminence no senator can reasonably aspire. At least through 2024, it’s clear the only way that Trump might be unseated is through the counterprogramming offered by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is selling himself — we’ll see with what success — as the candidate of governance and competence; no bigger celebrity or demagogue is walking through that door.

So, for now, there’s more benefit to legislative normalcy for ambitious Republicans, and less temptation toward the platform mentality, than there would be if Trump’s part were open for the taking.

Whatever happens, it will be years until that role comes open. In which case McCarthy could be happy in his job for much longer than might have been expected by anyone watching his tortuous ascent.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.