McCarthy’s leadership strategy shows no sign of working

The Republican majority in the House isn’t even two months old, but it’s already clear that Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to mollify his party’s extremist faction risks hurting the country without guaranteeing the thing he wants most: to keep his job as House leader. There might not be immediate consequences to McCarthy’s maneuvers, but the Republican leader is on the path to a painful government shutdown before the year is through, and he may even be on his way to a disastrous debt default.

McCarthy is facing the same no-win game that defeated Republican speakers John Boehner eight years ago and Paul Ryan a few years later. Far too many Republicans in Congress have a principled opposition to compromise. Far too many of them are interested mainly in symbolic victories rather than substantive policy change, and symbolism is inherently more difficult to bargain over than, say, dollars for district projects.

Recent GOP leaders also contend with constant jockeying by lawmakers seeking to differentiate themselves from (already very conservative) mainstream Republicans and appeal to the party’s right-wing base. But McCarthy also is dealing with a very narrow Republican House majority and a group of radical Republicans who might push for his ouster as speaker at any time.

McCarthy’s solution to his predicament is to give the extremists everything they ask for. That was sufficient to get him the job in the first place, albeit in an ugly fashion, during the session’s first week. And it’s producing plenty of programming for Republican media, whether by providing Fox News’s Tucker Carlson exclusive access to surveillance video from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol or handing representatives like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz prominent roles on high-profile committees.

Those moves already have led to predictable snafus and embarrassments for the new majority. But presumably McCarthy is fine with that as long as he keeps his job — and mainstream Republicans seem fine with it, too.

But McCarthy is eventually going to join with Democrats and vote to raise the debt limit so that the federal government can meet its payment obligations. Whether the vote happens before the nation defaults and causes catastrophic economic damage or afterward is largely up to him.

That McCarthy and Republican extremists will wind up on opposite sides is a consequence of divided government. No member of Congress from either party likes voting to raise the debt limit; they all treat it as a tough vote. During periods when the president’s party has majorities in both chambers of Congress, the president’s party has to supply the votes. When there is a divided government, as is the case now, both parties will need to come up with the votes to make it happen and avoid economic mayhem.

Extremists might react to an eventual debt-ceiling deal by seeking to dump McCarthy as their party’s leader. It’s natural for McCarthy to attempt to find a path that avoids risks to himself. But it just isn’t possible. Waiting until after the damage of default is done won’t make the problem go away; even after a default, the limit still will need to be raised (and as soon as possible in order to contain the damage), and the same group will still blame the speaker for buckling to Biden instead of holding out for better terms.

McCarthy should get used to it. The exact same dynamics will be in play for passing bills to fund the government for the next fiscal year and for any other must-pass bill during the current Congress. McCarthy can defy extremist Republicans before a government default or he can defy them after a default. His real choice isn’t whether to avoid that clash; it’s whether or not to precipitate an economic calamity.

It’s possible that some Republicans or even McCarthy himself believe that Biden and the Democrats will suffer in the 2024 elections from any economic calamity, regardless of who causes it. Not only would that be massively irresponsible, but it’s hardly a sure bet. And the more obvious it would be that Republicans are deliberately harming the nation, the more likely it would be that the strategy could backfire on them.

One thing McCarthy could ask for from Democrats as a price for passing the debt limit is for their support if his Republican opponents force a vote on whether he can remain as speaker.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. ©2023 Bloomberg. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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