Kevin McCarthy wasn’t talking much on the day after he stunned the Beltway crowd by dropping out of the race to become House speaker.
But his good buddy Rep. Devin Nunes was.
Nunes and McCarthy have known one another for 25 years, since Nunes was on the community college board in Visalia, and McCarthy was an aide to then-Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield.
Neither shy nor retiring, and certainly no liberal, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Nunes took aim at the one or two dozen Freedom Caucus members who tubed McCarthy’s candidacy, and the political organizations that egged them on.
“They are full of empty promises,” Nunes said. They have “no credible policy proposals,” but employ “heated rhetoric.” In the process, he said, they are undermining Republican control of Congress and conservative principles they purport to hold dear.
“A lot of it is about celebrity politics. A lot of it is about money,” Nunes said.
Most lucid people go about their lives paying little attention to the ugly goings on in Washington, D.C. When they do dial in, they see bickering, shutdowns and now the fight to replace Speaker John Boehner, and their disdain for the place grows.
I don’t feel sorry for politicians, and McCarthy certainly can take care of himself. But from his days in Sacramento, I know him to be a decent sort who was quick with a smile and a story, and had a heart.
Sacramento lobbyist Carl London recalls the 2006 budget fight in which McCarthy, then Assembly Republican leader, helped close the deal by insisting on additional $110 million for services for people with developmental disabilities. Back in Washington, that sort of deal-making comes off as weak.
As representatives left Washington last week, anti-McCarthy partisans whispered about darker reasons for his abrupt decision to drop out of the race and were not buying his stated reason: that he would be hobbled unless he could win full or near-full support of the 247 House Republicans.
But Nunes said that without that backing, McCarthy, like Boehner, would be subjected to attacks from right-wing radio yackers, shrill political operatives, and, of course, his fringy colleagues.
Nunes didn’t name the House Republicans in question, beyond referring to “the guy from Florida,” Rep. Daniel Webster, who insisted on running for speaker, knowing he could never get close to a majority of the House Republicans.
Members of the rump group made “crazy, outrageous demands” in exchange for promises of support, insisting on choice committee assignments and leadership positions, and that the National Republican Campaign Committee spend big sums on their campaigns.
“Nobody wants the job if you can’t go out there with 247 votes,” Nunes said. If he had secured, say, 220 votes, “it would look ridiculous.”
And pundits in the right-wing machine would claim that the handful of members who opposed McCarthy were “the only true conservatives.”
“Nobody wants any of that. Kevin said, ‘Why would I do this to myself, to my constituents?’ It’s really sad,” Nunes said.
Nunes wouldn’t name the organizations he had in mind, but they’re obvious: Heritage Action, Club for Growth, FreedomWorks. They have not-for-profit tax status, but Nunes called them for-profits, run by people who pull down high six-figure salaries.
“They’re not pushing any agenda. Their only way to make money is to sell memberships and get donations from our Republican base,” Nunes said. “How many tea party groups are there now? They’re all for-profit groups. They’re effectively lobbyists. They are the establishment in Washington.”
In Nunes’ view, three Republicans could lead the House: Boehner, McCarthy and Paul Ryan. What about Rep. Darrell Issa, the San Diego County Republican who is floating his name? Nope, certainly not until 2017.
Many Republicans are trying to draft Ryan, the former vice-presidential candidate. But the Wisconsin Republican cast votes to keep government running, raise the debt ceiling and prevent the economy from imploding during the 2008 crash. In short, he would face the same problems as McCarthy.
Nunes said he is advocating for an internal House rule that if a candidate for speaker gets a majority of the votes within the conference, all members should support that person. Members who can’t bring themselves to support the leader ought to be barred from remaining in the conference.
“How do you win the presidential election in 2016? How do you get these presidential candidates to talk about policy? We should be focusing on pushing policies out to the candidates,” he said. Instead, they’re locked in intramural warfare.
So long as they’re busy fighting among themselves, Republicans won’t be able to push proposals to weaken the Endangered Species Act or the Clean Air Act, Planned Parenthood or the Affordable Care Act. All that is fine with me. But the institution suffers, and that’s unfortunate.
Dan Morain is editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @DanielMorain.