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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: McCarthy panders his way to the top

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is next in line to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is next in line to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House. The Washington Post

For the last few years, I’ve wondered what it is about Kevin McCarthy that gives me the creeps.

The Republican seems plenty affable, and he is obviously good enough at politics to have ascended rapidly through the ranks of congressional leadership in just his fifth term. Still, there is something about him I don’t trust.

Now, thanks to a television interview that the House majority leader recently gave to right-wing host Sean Hannity, I finally have the answer.

I ought to be in McCarthy’s corner. We’re both from the San Joaquin Valley, a place steeped in the clear thinking and common sense that are often in short supply in our nation’s capital. If you’d like a taste of either, spend a little time with the folks who make their living from what remains the No. 1 industry in that part of the country: agriculture.

Farmers get terrible customer service from both parties. They care about two things that are always in short supply: water and labor.

Valley Democrats often hit up farmers for contributions by promising to loosen restrictions on water use to alleviate the worst drought in this country’s history. Then the lawmakers betray those constituents when they get to Washington by siding with environmentalists who seem bent on putting farmers out of business.

Meanwhile, Valley Republicans do their best to fleece the agricultural community by promising immigration reform and a guaranteed workforce to do jobs that Americans either can’t or won’t do. And then, once the lawmakers get inside the Beltway, they show their true colors by helping to kill reform and siding with the nativist wing of the GOP that trembles at the thought of a changing culture and shifting demographics.

So when I heard that McCarthy, a Valley son, was throwing his hat into the ring for the job of House speaker, I allowed myself to consider the possibility that real folks who live in the real world might once again have real leadership.

Then came McCarthy’s interview with Hannity.

Sure, the House majority leader was clumsy and inarticulate, and he made the mistake of linking two things that should remain separate – Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid and the House select committee investigation into the debacle in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought.”

For that act of generosity, McCarthy should expect a nice present from the Clintons this Christmas.

Conservative thinkers are right to ask whether McCarthy is smart enough to lead his party. What do Republicans do when they find out that the person on the fast track to becoming the next speaker can’t speak?

Yet the really troubling thing about that interview – and about a dozen more I’ve heard McCarthy give on television and radio – is not that the Republican can’t communicate. It’s that he can’t lead because he’s too busy following the crowd. He seems especially anxious to pander to whatever media celebrity he happens to find himself in front of on any given day.

Hannity took full advantage. He pressed McCarthy to promise that, unlike current Speaker John Boehner, he would complete four action items: “Defunding Planned Parenthood, defunding executive amnesty and immigration, defunding Obamacare, and this Iranian deal is an unmitigated disaster that will lead to a modern-day Holocaust.” The host demanded to know: “Will you tell conservative America tonight that you will fight to the end … to defund those issues and use the power of the purse?”

“Yes, the answer is yes,” McCarthy said.

How will his pledge to crack down on immigration play with his constituents? Is McCarthy telling farmers one thing and Hannity another? I hope the congressman gets an earful back home.

McCarthy obviously wants to be popular and well-liked. And so naturally he went into the contentious game of politics and now aspires to lead a Republican caucus that is divided more ways than you can count.

That doesn’t make any sense. Of course neither does much of what McCarthy is promising to do for conservatives. He’ll have to stop pandering and start thinking on his own if he wants to be taken seriously.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a Washington Post Writers Group columnist. Email: ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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