McCarthyism & The Red Scare

kevin mccarthy
Kevin McCarthy has just enough support to taste the Speakership—but enough enemies and antagonists that he might have to sell a piece of his soul to get there. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

This week, MAGA whisperer Tina Nguyen and I exchanged notes about the dynamics in Congress as Republicans claw their way back to House leadership. Only she can uniquely explain what the Freedom Caucus really wants, and I’m trying to decipher what other pounds of flesh the rest of the caucus will take from Kevin McCarthy as he vies to become Speaker. Could the moderates make a play with moderate Democrats to pick their own speaker? Could McCarthy make a last ditch deal with Democrats? We’re in for a wild few weeks. 

Tara Palmeri: Tina, you are so attuned to the MAGA wing of the Republican caucus—can you please explain to me their dream scenario for this Congress? Like if there were no moderates, no handrails, what would they do? 

Tina Nguyen: Never underestimate how single-minded the MAGA movement can be when it comes to delivering for the base. There would be a full-fledged investigation into Hunter Biden, and a full-fledged investigation into the origins of the January 6th Committee. Maybe some sort of investigation into Nancy Pelosi’s finances, Merrick Garland’s investigation of Mar-a-Lago, the origins of the Covid virus, and an investigation of Dr. Anthony Fauci. In this hypothetical world, you would see them target funding for Ukraine with the goal of severely curtailing or eliminating financial support altogether, holding up everything and anything in order to close the Southern border from illegal immigrants (good luck with that), and who knows, possibly investigating tech billionaires (except, of course, Elon Musk) for their alleged suppression of conservative speech online. 

Frankly, I’m pretty sure you’ll see them make this play right now even with a good amount of moderates in power and McCarthy ostensibly in charge. It’s a low-stakes way for them to engage the base: make McCarthy’s life a living hell by pushing their claims and bashing him as an establishment doormat while never worrying about the how and why of legislation. I have to wonder what it’s like on the McCarthy side of the equation. Thanks to the midterm outcome, his margin of power is so small. What does this dynamic look like from his perspective?

Tara: So, the Republicans I’ve spoken to over the weekend say there’s a 50 percent chance that McCarthy becomes Speaker, but those odds seem to be dropping every day. And over the next six weeks, we’re going to have to watch closely to see how McCarthy convinces 36 members, who didn’t vote for him in the conference vote, to support him for Speaker on the House floor on January 3rd. 

I don’t think we’re going to hear any pronouncements from McCarthy like “I’ve reached 218!” anytime before that. In fact, it could be one of those things where McCarthy goes for broke on the House floor and dares everyone to stomp on his dreams. So far, four members have publicly said they will not vote for McCarthy—Matt Gaetz and Andy Biggs were explicit “Nos” and Bob Good and Matt Rosendale have also strongly signaled that they are against McCarthy. They have this personal hatred for him. I don’t think he can change that.

Now in the best case scenario, one in which the Republicans have 222 seats in the House, McCarthy can afford to lose those four and still win the Speakership. But what if it ends up being 221? Then he needs to peel off one of them, or convince a Democrat to vote for him or get someone to abstain from voting. And I’m not even accounting for the silent ‘No’ voters who have not said publicly that they won’t vote for McCarthy. 

For now, we’re going to have to see what major concessions he’s willing to give up, and what power he’s willing to lose, in order to become Speaker. Thus far, he’s managed to dodge the House Freedom Caucus’s motion to vacate the demand that would allow just one member to call for a vote on the Speaker’s removal. The conference adopted an amendment last week that would require the majority of members to agree to hold a vote on the speakership. But surely McCarthy can put this back on the table if he’s really desperate to win. And he’s not going to pull a John Boehner and drop out before the vote. 

So, you know, the job sounds miserable—govern a conference that partly hates your guts, and will at the very least try to make your life a living hell—but you’ve also got to give him credit for getting the party’s problem children, like Jim Jordan and M.T.G., on his side. Can you please explain to me, Tina, how Marjorie Taylor Greene has fallen under the spell of McCarthy? 

Tina: Frankly, there’s no one quite like M.T.G. right now in the Republican party: she’s an amazing fundraiser, a huge rally draw, and thanks to her origins as a QAnon-citing online personality, she has an authenticity with the base that no one, save Trump, can really replicate. The amount of times that she’s been #cancelled on Twitter has turned her into a martyr among the culture warrior set, and every time I have gone to a rally or MAGA event, no one gets more applause than she does. When Trump mentioned her at CPAC this year—right after she drew heat for attending a white nationalist event—the crowd reacted like the Beatles had walked into the room.

M.T.G. represents the current mood of MAGA in a way that, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embodies the young progressive movement, but M.T.G. and her base also have an obstructionist, burn-it-all-down approach to politics that A.O.C. is too nice to ever try to replicate. I’d put it this way: she doesn’t need McCarthy to keep her thing going, but McCarthy needs her to even stay functional. (Admittedly, there’s a strategic benefit to putting her on a committee where her inflammatory tendencies can draw media attention and MAGA energy to pet issues.)  

But that’s just my neck of the woods. Tara, what are moderate Republicans doing in contrast? They were the ones who won big this election and in a three- or four-seat majority, everyone has power. Surely, this is an opportunity for them to squeeze out some concessions, or at least pick their leader. 

Tara: It’s true that it feels like the House Freedom Caucus holds all of the cards, but the truth is that the Republicans won the majority thanks to a lot of moderate members coming from California and New York. So, certainly, they can’t be ignored. 

It was noteworthy that Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, the most prominent moderate and G.O.P. leader of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, nominated McCarthy for speaker. But now I’m hearing that there are low-key fears that he, or a moderate like him, could end up becoming a challenger to McCarthy if it’s clear he can’t get the votes. That would require some serious Houdini-style magic, like getting most Republicans to vote with a sizable number of Democrats for a Republican speaker. It’s a long shot, to say the least. 

But what if this moderate leader can make a promise like, we won’t investigate Hunter Biden and Biden’s entire cabinet, and we won’t give you trouble on the debt ceiling, or somesuch? That might be something that Democrats can go home and sell to their constituents. 

But you’re right, Tina, the trouble for McCarthy is that in a three- to four-seat majority, everyone has power, not just the Freedom Caucus. And the moderate Republicans are less thirsty for Hunter Biden red meat as payback for the Trump investigations. They want to address pocket-book issues, not right-wing fringe obsessions. I know that Republicans are actually worried about this unlikely House of Cards-like scenario where moderate Republicans align with Democrats to elect a speaker, but it just shows you how precarious the situation is right now. It’s all very theoretical, until it’s plainly clear that McCarthy really doesn’t have the votes. 

I would think at that point, McCarthy would then go to moderate Democrats offering concessions for votes or abstaining from voting. He reportedly approached Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar to switch parties, but he said no. Maybe he can get Democrat Jared Golden from Maine, who votes like a Republican, to just abstain from voting, which could lower McCarthy’s threshold to get to 218.

Tina: But Tara, who are the other options? 

Tara: That’s the problem for McCarthy-haters: without an alternative, it’s hard to fight him off. His No. 2, Rep. Steve Scalise, might be an option but I doubt he’ll do anything before the vote to rock the boat, and I’m not sure he’s who the House Freedom Caucus wants either. He has said he supports McCarthy, and he’s probably more amenable to moderates than say Jim Jordan or Elise Stefanik, who they will surely balk at. But maybe these Freedom Caucus members just want to get rid of McCarthy and they don’t care who takes his place. In the meantime, I’ve heard the names like Patrick McHenry and Chip Roy floated, but nothing too serious. 

Tina: I wouldn’t be surprised to see the MAGA caucus run McCarthy out of pure spite. But on the other side of the Capitol, Mitch McConnell just survived a MAGA challenge to his power in the form of Rick Scott running against him as Minority Leader. Can McConnell keep the MAGA agenda out of the Senate now that there’s a real world faction against him? 

Tara: First of all, the vote against McConnell this week really wasn’t a blow to him; Rick Scott only won 10 votes. But it’s true that the conservative bloc is growing, and the new Senate—J.D. Vance, Eric Schmitt, Ted Budd—adds some headcount to the MAGA cohort that already included Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Mike Lee. It’s fair to say that the Senate is definitely starting to look a little more like the composition of the House, despite its reputation for being the more genteel, moderate chamber. 

Lucky for McConnell, it’s easier to lead in the minority, even if your caucus is littered with rabble rousers. He can marshall energy toward voting against Democratic nominees rather than have to worry about the burden of legislating. But it can be much more difficult to keep the caucus together when it comes to government spending. Think about it: Cruz has already signaled he wants to shut down the government over government funding to expand the I.R.S. as part of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. Since so many of these spending fights will start in the House, it’ll be up to McCarthy to solve a lot of these problems before they get to the Senate. There will be much more pressure on him than McConnell. And love him or hate him, there aren’t a ton of people behind McConnell gunning to replace him.