Jan 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

McCarthy's plot to build the House of Trump

Photo illustration of a collage of Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy and the US Capitol.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Al Drago/Bloomberg, Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Kevin McCarthy is signaling he'll institutionalize key Trumpian priorities if he takes over as House speaker next year — aggressive tactics targeting undocumented immigrants, liberals and corporate America. 

Why it matters: He'd govern with an edge and agenda in stark contrast not just to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) but to Paul Ryan, the last Republican in the role. McCarthy's vision would empower populists and pugilists to complete the Republican makeover Donald Trump drove this far.

The big picture: Over the past year — and intensifying in recent months — the 56-year-old House minority leader from Bakersfield, California, has been auditioning for a contest he failed at before.

  • On issue after issue, he's laying down markers continuing the dramatic transformation of GOP leadership since 2017.

What we're seeing: Where Ryan was comparatively sympathetic toward undocumented immigrants, McCarthy is preemptively hard-line, as his recent Breitbart News interview showed.

  • Where Ryan focused on tax cuts and fostered friendly relations with corporate America, McCarthy is publicly excoriating the Chamber of Commerce, threatening crippling regulations on social media companies and planning to inject an anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mindset into the work of every congressional committee possible.
  • Where Ryan tried to maintain civil relationships across the aisle, McCarthy promises to strip high-profile Democrats of their committee assignments.

"We're going to be more aggressive than in the past," McCarthy told Axios.

  • "We're not going to sit back and just take a 'no' for an answer…it can't be business as usual."

Between the lines: If Biden's low approval ratings and GOP strength in the generic ballot hold, the 2022 midterms may be the most favorable political environment for Republicans since the 2010 Tea Party wave election.

  • Ryan cast himself as a policy leader devoted to conservative principles such as shrinking the size of government.
  • McCarthy is more inclined to reflect the views of his conference — which may be even Trumpier a year from now than they are today.

On immigration: McCarthy reiterated to Axios his recent pledge to Breitbart's Matt Boyle — that he'll not consider any legislation offering legal status to undocumented immigrants, preemptively ruling out comprehensive immigration reform.

  • Republican leaders toyed with bipartisan reforms earlier in the 2000s and came close in 2013 with the so-called Gang of Eight plan.
  • But since then, amenable Republicans have either been driven out of the party (see: Jeff Flake) or atoned with the base for their perceived sins and seem unlikely to go there again (see: Marco Rubio).

Relationship with corporate America: Many major corporations condemned former President Trump and after Jan. 6, cut their financial ties and disavowed Republicans who objected to certifying President Biden's victory. McCarthy hasn't forgotten, and he's signaled a hostile relationship with key emissaries of corporate America.

  • He's excoriated the Chamber of Commerce — once a pillar of the Republican Party — telling Breitbart that "the Chamber left the party a long time ago" and noting its endorsements of House Democrats in 2020. McCarthy has made clear he wants nothing to do with the Chamber if the GOP returns to power.
  • He traveled to Georgia last May to reinforce his vision of the GOP’s new relationship with business: siding with small businesses that oppose corporations pursuing "woke" social justice policies.
  • He met with small business owners who said they were harmed by Major League Baseball's decision to move the All-Star game from Atlanta after Republicans passed a restrictive voting bill.
  • McCarthy also told Axios he plans to inject tough-on-China initiatives into the work of numerous congressional committees — putting him at odds with some of the GOP's traditional donor class.

Economic orthodoxy: Until very recently, Republican leaders talked incessantly about tax cuts and deregulation. Trump's biggest legislative accomplishment was a huge corporate tax cut. But when McCarthy talks about Republicans' approach to some of the biggest corporations, he makes threats.

  • On Jan. 4, after Twitter de-platformed far-right GOP congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), McCarthy tweeted: "Twitter (all big tech), if you shut down constitutionally protected speech (not lewd and obscene) you should lose 230 protection. Acting as publisher and censorship regime should mean shutting down the business model you rely on today, and I will work to make that happen."

An enemies list: McCarthy has promised to escalate the inter-party warfare by stripping multiple Democrats of their seats on important committees.

  • He says he'd retaliate against Pelosi, who stripped committee memberships from Greene and far-right Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and removed Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.) from the Jan. 6 committee.
  • McCarthy told Breitbart as speaker he'd remove Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) from the House Intelligence Committee; Swalwell from the Homeland Security Committee; and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Relationship with conservatives: McCarthy's willing to empower the most conservative members of his conference as no recent GOP leader has done.

  • He elevated Jordan — once seen as a rival — to ranking member on House Judiciary and placed many other members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus on desirable committees. McCarthy said it's about matching people to their talents and that he wasn't favoring one faction of the conference over others.

Bottom line: McCarthy doesn't have a completely smooth road to speaker, even if Republicans dominate. This partly explains his aggressive efforts to align himself with the base.

  • Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), no fan of McCarthy's, has been pushing the idea of Trump becoming speaker of the House. One doesn't need to be elected to Congress to serve as speaker.
  • Trump's very unlikely to go for this, sources close to him say. Trump was furious after McCarthy initially blamed him for the Jan. 6 riot. But McCarthy went quickly to Mar-a-Lago to make peace.
  • Trump's had plenty of opportunities since to attack McCarthy. But unlike Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell — whom Trump attacks at every opportunity — the former president has been sparing to McCarthy, suggesting he probably wouldn't block his path to speaker.
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