Kevin McCarthy in Position to be a Hero

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught public policy at USF, UC Berkeley and other institutions and is Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors

If the GOP wants to stay in the game and restore some of its fading luster, one person who could have a lot to say about it is the new House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who will now have the unenviable task of assuming command over some badly demoralized troops.

He also has an opportunity which his two immediate predecessors, Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, muffed in failing to show some spine by standing up to the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus which has dictated GOP House policy for the past eight years.

The previous leaders who were clearly marginalized by these inflexible tormentors showed little gumption to challenge Trump when his popularity had yet to begin waning.

McCarthy has a chance to extricate himself from that stranglehold which Trump has been able to exploit.

According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center, 57% of nationwide voters do not favor the building of any Wall whether or not Mexico picks up the tab—a devout promise Trump made to his followers that he may not be able to keep.

With dark clouds now hanging over him that are threatening his presidency and raising quiet doubts even among some of his staunchest GOP defenders as to whether he can survive, the stage is opening to potential challengers.

Now that the Democrats will wield the Speaker’s gavel, McCarthy might see himself freed from needing to assuage the hardline conservatives who obstructed any possibility of consensus even when the Republicans held total power.

If McCarthy can muster the courage and has the necessary skills to carry it off he could help rescue his party from a worse trouncing in 2020 by teaming up with Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to form a coalition government strong enough to resist Trump’s reckless initiatives.

Of course this would send a vindictive and unyielding president with little interest in bipartisan cooperation into a frenzy, but it could also blunt some of the momentum of the impeachment advocates on the other side of the aisle who are being counselled to await the outcome of the Mueller investigation.

It could also put greater pressure on Trump to come to terms with a reconstructed Congress that, under Pelosi’s leadership, might see the wisdom of offering cooperation with the backing of both parties over that of unremitting confrontation.

The first test is occurring right now in the continuing stalemate involving the reopening of the government in a game of who blinks first.

McCarthy has little to lose by playing the role of conciliator especially if Pelosi’s inability to control the more ardent pro-impeachment members exposes new divisions among those in her party that could prevent legislative progress on issues where both parties could achieve compromise.

Pelosi, ever the realist, would see the benefits of coalition government that could further solidify her party’s position entering the next election cycle if it could put a check on Trump’s ambitions even it if means sharing some of the credit.

McCarthy, who will have no say over the renewed investigations about to be unleashed by the Democrats into presidential wrongdoings, might also see the benefits of extending a fig leaf to the opponents.

By working with Speaker Pelosi and bucking a president who is apparently prepared at any cost to let his party go down in flames so long as he gets his way, McCarthy could emerge as a genuine hero two years from now if Trump is either forced out of office or denied re-nomination.

Either is possible if the restarted congressional inquiries and Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller’s investigation which has now been extended by six months put Trump in insurmountable constitutional peril.

But it is even more likely that if Trump’s tax and trade policies are seen as demonstrably injurious to his middle class base and the economy goes into a nosedive, this could be the factor that finally tips the scales.

In that scenario with Trump irretrievably weakened, McCarthy could emerge in 2020 as the leader to whom Republicans might choose to turn if other candidates falter.

At the very least McCarthy could not be held accountable for caving into demands from his party’s right wing extremists that are doomed to failure or for a recalcitrant president tone-deaf to policies that other leaders continue mistakenly to back.

Trump, for the moment, can continue to rely upon the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, to thwart any legislation he does not like in a chamber which has become an extension of the Oval Office.

This has been made explicit with McConnell’s pledge that the Senate will not pass any bill regarding the Wall unless given assurance by Trump that he will not veto it. However, McCarthy shows no signs of supporting a bill that does not include some funding for it—a condition the president is demanding to reopen the government.

Whether McCarthy can summon the will to take on the president remains to be seen.

But there are now stirrings of growing disenchantment with Trump’s excesses even among some of the GOP Senators who will be up for reelection in 2020 and considered vulnerable.

Self-protection is the first rule of every politician and this president is making that extremely difficult for those torn between their loyalty to him or taking positions that could save their careers.

If McCarthy can reach some accommodation with Pelosi leading toward progress on immigration reform, transportation infrastructure funding, Medicare and Medicaid expansion and other issues on which consensus is attainable, it could send a powerful signal to wavering Senators who may be willing to defy Trump.

This might all be nothing more than chimerical musings. But if a coalition can be built for no other reason than political survival it could result in enough votes to produce legislation acceptable to mainstream voters and even override presidential vetoes.

Of course this will require courage and greater integrity on the part of lawmakers who so far have shown little of it.

In a bitterly divided nation, coalition government may be the only way to restore some semblance of orderliness and stability while we await the fate of a president who is abusing his executive powers, may be complicit in criminal activities and could well be jeopardizing national security.

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