Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Kevin McCarthy: The Gimp Who Thinks He’s a Master

He wants to be seen as a tough, sane leader. In reality, he’s a spineless suckup.
September 29, 2022
Kevin McCarthy: The Gimp Who Thinks He’s a Master
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Kevin McCarthy wants you to know that he is a very brilliant and extremely ruthless tactician with an iron grip on his caucus that he will use to crush the troublemakers and deliver Conservative Results™ for the American people.

Or, to be more precise, House Republican Leader McCarthy wants his donors to know that he is a very brilliant and extremely ruthless tactician who will do those things. The rest of us just have to read it in the Washington Post because for “My Kevin’s” purposes that is more credible and less tacky than telling them in person.

The Post story, titled “How Kevin McCarthy’s political machine worked to sway the GOP field,” purports to provide the inside scoop on how McCarthy and his allies stamped out the crazies in their party, wielding power like a dark-timeline LBJ:

​​Behind-the-scenes effort by top GOP donors and senior strategists to purge the influence of Republican factions that seek disruption and grandstanding, often at the expense of their GOP colleagues. The political machine around McCarthy has spent millions of dollars this year in a sometimes secretive effort to systematically weed out GOP candidates who could either cause McCarthy trouble if he becomes House speaker or jeopardize GOP victories.

If only it were so.

As somebody who has made self-aggrandizing pitches about my side’s political genius for political reporters, I know how to leverage a “shoot what flies, claim what falls” ethos to make yourself look brilliant. As such, the structure of the material in the Post article looked familiar to me. And at the 30,000-foot level there is some modest evidence for the case being made by McCarthy.

But once you start to wade into the details . . . well . . . color me unconvinced.

Let’s take a look under the hood together.

The central piece of evidence for the McCarthy-as-strong-congressional-leader case is the defeat of Madison Cawthorn, an unimaginably immature, Führer-stanning college dropout who was swept into Congress despite myriad unresolved personal issues stemming at least in part from a tragic car accident.

Not exactly like taking on Genghis Khan, but okay.

Yes, the campaign to oust Cawthorn was successful, but it bears mentioning that it was also disgustingly homophobic boob bait. The Post story does not indicate if the reporters uncovered whether McCarthy operatives were the source behind the grainy video and other leaks that heavily implied Cawthorn might be gay, but that was the word on the street among former colleagues of mine last spring.

The “Results for N.C.” ads McCarthy is now claiming credit for provide additional evidence. These ads included the now infamous pictures of Cawthorn in a lacy shirt and another of him shirtless on a pool raft with another man laying his head on his chest, as an ominous voiceover declares the candidate “an embarrassment.”

So I guess on this count, we should give Kevin credit where credit is due. He successfully deployed the oldest trick in Washington and got rid of one headache with a “wink, wink, Madison’s a fag” campaign.


But as the degree of difficulty got higher, it seems he didn’t have the stones for the fight.

Where was Big Bad Kevin in the primaries against Majorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, and the rest? Not only are they still in Congress, but the Coup Squad was out there throughout campaign season this year, putting their stamp of approval on candidates nationwide—not through the furtive Super PAC money laundering that Kevin has to employ to avoid blowback, but right out in the open!

On the other end of the spectrum—defense of the Trump impeachers in his conference—Kevin was also an abysmal failure. In the primaries where he did try to engage, he was ineffectual at best. In other cases, like those of Liz Cheney and Peter Meijer, the incumbent members of his conference were hung out to dry.

The name “Meijer” does not appear in the Post’s story. For good reason. The only thing McCarthy seemed to be able to do for this loyal swing-district representative was get his friends to complain about the mean Democrats campaigning against him. Once Meijer was dispatched by the MAGA mob, McCarthy trekked to Michigan to enthusiastically endorse his primary opponent, John Gibbs, a man who has not only backed Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, but has argued against women’s suffrage, accused John Podesta of being a satanist, and defended antisemites.

Guess we’ll put that one in the demerit column when assessing the efficacy of Kevin’s “purge” of potential distractions.

Kevin’s team did spring into action on behalf of Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington congresswoman who was being primaried by far-right nationalist Joe Kent, whose pathetic groveling in front of a group of KKK youth I highlighted last year.

McCarthy’s hit squad did not confront Kent about his white nationalist ideation or autocratic tendencies. Instead they ran ads “misleadingly suggesting he wanted to ‘defund the police’” and showing pictures of him “sporting long hair,” according to the Post. Shockingly this hippie-baiting strategy did not work. Kent defeated Herrera Beutler and will be joining McCarthy’s conference next year if he wins the general election.

Team McCarthy also failed to wield its influence successfully to prevent literal domestic terrorists from joining the House GOP conference.

There is Ohio’s J.R. Majewski, a psychotic, QAnon-affiliated Capitol rioter who said on a livestream that he walked “all the way to the base of the Capitol building” on January 6th. It’s unclear whether Team McCarthy engaged secretly during Majewski’s primary, but McCarthy did go to Ohio to campaign for him in public. In the month since the McCarthy/Majewski meeting of the minds, the NRCC announced it was pulling $1 million from his campaign to redirect it toward candidates with a better chance to win.


Then there’s Wisconsin’s Derrick Van Orden, a candidate who “had a front-row seat to the mayhem” on January 6th. McCarthy has endorsed his candidacy.

McCarthy’s allies did try to influence a North Carolina primary featuring Sandy Smith, another candidate who marched from the Ellipse to the Capitol on January 6th in support of Trump’s coup attempt. As the Post noted, McCarthy’s leadership PAC spent $600k on ads calling Smith “pro-amnesty.” That didn’t work either; she won anyway.

But the trio of coup-stars are far from the only crazies who won Republican primaries this year. In Texas, Monica De La Cruz is accused of abusing her ex-husband’s teenage daughter. After losing in 2020 she repeatedly said her election was stolen without evidence. In Arizona, GOP nominee Kelly Cooper said, “The prisoners of January 6th need to be worked [sic] to be released on day one. I’ll make every effort to make sure that happens.” In Colorado, Republicans nominated Barb Kirkmeyer, who was an outspoken leader in the effort to get eleven counties to secede from the state. Bo Hines, a GOP congressional nominee in North Carolina, is an unemployed 26-year-old most famous for believing the term “banana republic” was a reference to the clothing store while arguing that we should defund the FBI and IRS.

Quite the purge!

And that’s just a representative set of the absolutely deranged candidates Republicans have nominated this cycle for House seats in red, purple, and blue districts.

Team McCarthy conveniently ignores this pandemic of lunacy and pats itself on the back for spending $40,000 on “turnout calls” to help a sitting congressman fend off a primary from racist nutjob Laura Loomer—something that seems like it would be more of a bare-minimum box-check than anything to brag about.

But regardless of what McCarthy’s allies did in a handful of races, the big picture is unambiguous. The House Republican conference next year will be more Trumpy, more conspiracy addled, and have more avowed insurrectionists than the current Congress. Nearly everyone who stood up to Trump will be gone. Meanwhile, according to the FiveThirtyEight analysis, “118 election deniers and seven election doubters have at least a 95% chance of winning.”

The looniest of the loonies in the party are not only sticking around, but their ranks are growing. “My Kevin” has shown absolutely zero willingness to confront any of them, with the sole exception being a hapless man-child who needed to be slapped down because he said GOP leaders were inviting him to cocaine orgies.

It’s clear from the Post article that Kevin McCarthy’s allies want folks to believe that as House speaker he will be “aggressive,” unlike the cucked John Boehner and Paul Ryan, whose leadership was “marred by dissent and dysfunction.”

But here’s the rub. The only difference between McCarthy and his two GOP predecessors is that he will avoid dissent by simply letting the crazies own him. There will be no dysfunction because he will put up no fight.

If a majority of his caucus wants to make up a fantasy about the election to try to tear down our democracy, McCarthy will vote with them.

If they want to impeach Joe Biden because his son did crack, McCarthy will go along.

If they want to erect a bronze statue to Donald John Trump on the Capitol grounds, you best believe McCarthy will sponsor the bill.

The Post article quotes an unnamed well-wisher who calls McCarthy a “political animal” who is “not to be trifled with,” saying of him: “No better friend, no worse enemy.” I presume this person insisted on anonymity to avoid the public humiliation that would come with such a ludicrous tongue-bath.

Because that description doesn’t fit McCarthy at all. The truth about Kevin McCarthy is that he’s a toadying, spineless suckup. He’s a Scar who thinks he’s a Simba. A Saul Goodman who thinks he’s a Gus Fring. A gimp who thinks he’s a master.

He will be allowed to stay in his role by those who are actually in charge as long as he doesn’t do anything that would require exerting independent power: directing members to do something they don’t want to do.

It’s a deal Kevin is happy with. One that will probably land him in the speaker’s chair.

But let’s not kid ourselves, he’s not swaying anything. And nobody on God’s green earth is scared of him, least of all the most extreme voices in his caucus.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.