Kevin McCarthy: Trickle Downer of The Week

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan speak to reporters in Washington

You’ve got to remember, I’m the only guy in the modern era who didn’t want this job,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told Politico Magazine last fall. Nonetheless, Ryan entered the speakership with a clear sense of mission. There were taxes to be cut and safety nets to be slashed. Forced to traverse a chasm between Republicans factions, Ryan considers holding his caucus together in December for the tax overhaul to be the highest point in his speakership. 

Now, with Ryan’s announced departure, those hoping for a change in the trajectory of the Republican Party to arrive with Ryan’s replacement should brace themselves for disappointment.

For the second time in nearly three years, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California appears to be the odds-on favorite to take the spot as number-one Republican in the House. 

McCarthy has been at the center of the fights for nearly every major Republican piece of legislation and deregulatory effort since Donald Trump became president. He delivered on his promise to pass an Obamacare repeal in the House, though the measure failed in the Senate, as in years past. He was also a key player in scrapping more than a dozen Obama-era regulations through the Congressional Review Act. 

McCarthy is considered by many to be the president’s inside-man in Congress, having been one of the first Republican leaders to support Trump as a candidate. Famously, McCarthy served as a liaison between Trump and congressional Republicans who had disavowed him after the release of the bombshell Access Hollywood Tape. McCarthy—whom Trump referred to as “my Kevin”—has maintained a special relationship with the president ever since, shepherding his agenda, whenever possible, though the House. 

Though he hasn’t officially announced a run, McCarthy has already received support from Ryan himself and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who showed interest in the job early on but announced he would not challenge McCarthy. But there are other caucus members whom McCarthy will need to convince. 

McCarthy’s first bid for the speakership was largely sunk by opposition from members of the House Freedom Caucus, who viewed him as too close to the Republican establishment. An endorsement from then-Speaker John Boehner did little to endear him to conservative hardliners, and McCarthy dropped out of the race just hours before the caucus was to vote. After much nudging, Paul Ryan consented to take the nomination instead. 

Unlike Ryan, who was initially unwilling to accept the gavel, McCarthy has wanted the speakership for years. And it appears likely that the California congressman will have to cater to the demands of the extreme right of his caucus to get it. 

With members of the House Freedom Caucus none too happy at the size of domestic spending included in the $1.3 trillion budget funding bill passed last month, McCarthy has reportedly been working closely with Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Trump himself on a rescission package. The White House is reportedly gearing up to submit a request for $25 billion in immediate spending cuts, according to Reuters. Reductions to social safety net programs remain on the table. McCarthy himself signaled in December that Republicans could work on the deficit they ballooned with their tax cut by turning to cuts in Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. He just may get his chance.

While shadowing McCarthy as he prepared for the role of Frank Underwood on the Netflix show House of Cards, Kevin Spacey pocketed one of the congressman’s well-known phrases: “Vote your district. Vote your conscience. Just don’t surprise me.” 

In the race for the speakership, McCarthy’s colleagues become his constituents; the different caucuses become different parts of his district. We should not be surprised, then, when McCarthy embraces the social Darwinism of the Freedom Caucus and the president in his audition for speaker of the House. 

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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