Last week, as one faction of Republicans sought to punish Marjorie Taylor Greene and another for Liz Cheney, Kevin McCarthy was faced with a choice: Would he apply at least some standard of discipline to his party’s members? Or would he embrace the nihilistic vision of power-for-power’s sake that has defined the Donald Trump era? It was an unwelcome question for the House minority leader. But with the MAGA wing trying to strip Cheney of her leadership role over her impeachment vote, and more mainstream Republicans eager for distance from the conspiratorial Greene, it seemed he’d finally have to make it.
McCarthy’s talent for elusion, however, was clearly underestimated. Somehow, he managed to push the party’s existential crisis—and its looming civil war—down the road. McCarthy did not reprimand Greene over her support for conspiracy theories and unsuitable conduct, leading Democrats to remove her from her committee assignments themselves. At the same time, he allowed the wing she represents to rail against Cheney, the number-three House Republican, for voting to impeach Trump last month; she would go on to easily survive a MAGA push to remove her from her leadership post. In short: Mitch McConnell’s establishment got what it wanted—Greene sidelined and Cheney safe—and the Trumpist right got what it wanted—to indulge in their grievances without significant pushback from party brass.
McCarthy led by not leading, and in the short term it seems to have paid off. The splintering GOP remains intact, for now. But not choosing is still a choice, and it’s not clear how long the intra-party peace will last. “Kevin never takes a stand,” an influential Republican adviser told CNN last week. “He is always on every side of every issue. Does he want to be the Republican party,” the adviser continued, “or the QAnon party?”
Though he tried his best to avoid answering that question, McCarthy effectively did: Refusing to denounce Greene makes it clear that there is a home for that kind of extremism in the GOP. What’s more, declining to take a harder stand in support of Cheney, whom he reportedly pressed to apologize for her impeachment vote, suggests that insufficient loyalty to Trump is an appropriate litmus test for members of his party to impose on one another. That doesn’t say much about McCarthy’s principles, or those of the GOP. “Kevin McCarthy stands for nothing, except the perpetuation of his own position,” Democrat Adam Schiff told Meet the Press on Sunday, when asked about the minority leader’s threats of retribution following the vote to to strip Greene of her committee assignments. “He has no values, and in my view cares about little except for hoping to be speaker one day.”
His spinelessness could ultimately thwart those personal ambitions. While some in the ranks praised him for keeping the party together through its biggest post-Trump stress test last week, others—including the former president himself—seemed less appreciative of the balancing act. Matt Gaetz declined to say to CNN if he was confident in the minority leader, and a “stir-crazy” Trump, with whom McCarthy met at Mar-a-Lago last month, is said to be “livid and fuming” that McCarthy “betrayed” him by not reprimanding Cheney. Meanwhile, taking a permissive stance toward extremism in his party has earned him few friends among the establishment. “Any talk of the speakership is now a joke,” a GOP adviser told CNN. McCarthy may learn that trying to keep everyone happy is a good way to ensure that nobody is.
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