Skip to content
Kevin McCarthy: Still Running Interference for the GOP
Go to my account

Kevin McCarthy: Still Running Interference for the GOP

The former speaker reflects on a congressional career and its rocky ending.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, December 5, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Rep. Kevin McCarthy was the speaker of the United States House of Representatives just shy of nine months. The California Republican’s tumultuous tenure began controversially, after a marathon 15 rounds of voting on the House floor, because of major resistance from members of his own party. It ended the same way, after a single House vote forced by a single member of his own party. 

Yet liberated from the shackles of leadership, and just days away from resigning midway through his ninth term, McCarthy hesitated to speak unreservedly—about having the gavel unceremoniously ripped away, about his GOP colleagues, about a dysfunctional Congress, and of course, about Donald Trump, the former president and frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination. Nothing illustrated McCarthy’s apprehension more than the way he sidestepped a question about House Republicans having such a hard time passing the most basic legislation. 

“Well, there’s a couple different things,” McCarthy starts during a wide-ranging exit interview with The Dispatch. Then he segues. “It’s not just in the House Republicans. It’s also in the House Democrats. I mean, think about what the Democrats have a problem—they have a problem now, supporting Israel.” McCarthy isn’t necessarily wrong. But the question wasn’t about House Democrats, nor about the fact that an outspoken wing of their caucus is hostile to Israel. 

The question was about House Republicans, who, beset by factional, philosophical, and tactical infighting, have for years stubbornly failed to unify behind all manner of legislation. That ranges from routine, annual spending bills—such as one to fund the Agriculture Department for the next fiscal year—to the transformative, such as a 2018 package to overhaul immigration law. Indeed, House Republicans have proven for more than decade that they would rather squander their majority and cede lawmaking to Democrats rather than stick together to maximize whatever policy gains are available to them. 

What did McCarthy have to say about that, given his front row seat ? Donning a casual winter vest and a perpetual smile while fielding an endless series of phone calls from a makeshift office inside the Capitol, McCarthy finally dished—a little.

“What really happened in 2008 is the shift where people can raise money online,” he said, referring to the popularization of grassroots donors contributing in small amounts to candidates through internet portals. “People raise money online by attacking other Republicans … Then you’ve got Twitter and others. And so it’s more an anti-thing.” Ironically, McCarthy suggested grassroots conservatives are receptive to Republican-on-Republican violence precisely because the party has whiffed in Congress. “They haven’t solved all the problems. So, there is an anger out there as well,” McCarthy, who’s been a member of GOP leadership since 2009, said. “There is a growth in populism. So it’s all this combination.”

But on topic after topic, McCarthy wasn’t able to square the politician he described himself as—“I’m not afraid to govern”—with the divided insurgency that his party has become over the past decade-plus. The same could be said about McCarthy’s ideology on key issues. This was evident in the way the 55th House speaker, who came of age politically under President Ronald Reagan, rationalized his party’s growing opposition to aiding Ukraine against Russia’s unprovoked invasion. 

On the one hand: McCarthy is a firm believer in providing U.S. military aid to Kyiv, because, he said—and has said repeatedly—Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has to be stopped. “When I look at America today—I look at the world today, it looks a lot like 1930; the 1930s. All of Putin’s actions are very similar to Hitler’s action,” he said. “I don’t view this as a Ukraine war. I view this as stopping Putin. And when I look at resources that need to be provided, it’s really replenishing our stockpile. We’re weakening ourselves right now.”

On the other hand: Even though McCarthy acknowledges the isolationist strain coursing through the Republican Party and has been critical of his successor, Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana, for pairing military aid to Israel with a measure to slash funding for the Internal Revenue Service despite the urgency of the war against Hamas, he essentially blames President Joe Biden for what he says is a lack of public focus on the issue for the drop in support for Ukraine among House Republicans. 

This is despite the fact that McCarthy refused to let Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky address the House GOP conference when he visited Congress in September. “Whoever is the president, where—if you’re going to engage in something just like Ronald Reagan would, he would bring the American public along. He would communicate with them, talk to them, explain to them,” he said this week. 

McCarthy did answer one question directly: Will House Republicans grow their majority in 2024? “More than 10,” he said, without skipping a beat.

McCarthy is 58 years old, the same age his father was when he died, and he’s spent a lifetime in politics. 

Beginning in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, he was active in GOP politics at the local, state, and national levels while working as an aide to his hometown congressman, Bill Thomas, the irascible Republican who served as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee before retiring in 2006. In 2002, McCarthy won a seat in the California Legislature; his goal was to become the ranking Republican on the Assembly Health Committee. Instead, his GOP colleagues elected him assembly minority leader. 

His swift Sacramento ascendance coincided with the historic October 2003 gubernatorial recall of Democrat Gray Davis, whom voters replaced with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. It immediately thrust McCarthy into the spotlight, joining the “Big Five” talks between the state’s movie-star-turned-governor and the four Democratic and Republican caucus leaders from the Assembly and Senate, respectively. 

The experience, McCarthy said, “was an unbelievable opportunity,” that, unbeknownst to him at the time, helped shape the congressional leader he would become. 

“For me, it’s almost like I was fearless,” he recalled. “I would try things, and it was a great training ground because in California the policies are so large [and] national.” That training ground produced a Republican more interested in governing than notching appearances on cable television news or purity-preening for the conservative base. “I want to be in the majority; I want to be able to win seats.” 

That desire manifested itself in 2006 when McCarthy was elected to Congress and swiftly ascended the Republican leadership ladder on Capitol Hill—first as chief deputy minority whip in 2009, then as majority whip in 2011, then eventually as majority leader in 2014 and a brief, failed run at the speakership in 2015. That desire to build majorities is why, McCarthy explained, he religiously read the Almanac of American Politics on long flights to and from the West Coast, hoping to glean granular political and policy data on each of the House’s 435 districts, as well as detailed biographies of the politicians who represent them. 

The affable Republican from California’s interior Central Valley—the deep blue state’s last conservative bastion—was practically a savant when it came to establishing close relationships with fellow members, including some Democrats. He was on the road nonstop visiting Republicans in their districts and raising record amounts of campaign cash for incumbents and challengers. 

But those on the right flank of the House Republican conference never embraced him the way they did other conference leaders. By the time of his election to the speakership early this year, it had become clear that McCarthy’s pragmatism was growing increasingly at odds with the zeitgeist of his party’s obsession with grievance politics.

Unlike standard, secret-ballot leadership elections, winning the gavel requires a public vote of 218 members on the House floor. One of the deals McCarthy made with the right flank of the House Republican conference in order to become speaker after those 15 ballots in January was a rule making it possible for just one of his GOP colleagues to force a vote to remove him through a “motion to vacate.” And because McCarthy was presiding over a razor-thin four-seat majority, he had few votes to spare.  

McCarthy critics tell The Dispatch the historic effort to remove him in October succeeded because the Californian lacked the trust of his colleagues after making too many promises he didn’t keep, that he couldn’t keep because they conflicted with each other. Others faulted him for negotiating a compromise with Biden to raise the federal debt limit. McCarthy blames the outcome almost exclusively on Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Trump acolyte from Florida who triggered the vote to remove him and was joined by just seven additional House Republicans. 

“If he’d never made that motion, nobody else, those who voted for it, never would’ve made the motion,” McCarthy said, claiming Gaetz brought the “motion to vacate” on October 3 to shield himself from a congressional ethics investigation (Gaetz denies the charge.) 

Separately, isn’t it possible, McCarthy was asked, that this is a broader problem—that a Republican Party led by Trump, who refuses to honor election results he doesn’t like, is eventually going to see that posture trickle down to House members voting in internal congressional leadership contests? (Per House Republican conference rules: The candidate who wins the internal conference vote to nominate a speaker is supposed to be supported on the House floor. And McCarthy was nominated in the fall of 2022 after winning the support of more than 95 percent of House Republicans.) 

McCarthy, who has endorsed Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and expressed interest in working in a second Trump administration, insists the 45th president’s habit of discarding elections whose outcomes he doesn’t like bears no responsibility for him losing the gavel. “Matt Gaetz never honors any rule. It wouldn’t matter if Donald Trump was around or not,” McCarthy said, adding that House Republicans have flouted conference rules with increasing frequency over the years. 

If McCarthy has scorn for anyone else in this matter, it’s House Democrats collectively, especially a particular fellow Californian from San Francisco, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, 83, who preceded him as speaker. This despite the fact that McCarthy conceded Republicans would hardly have to come to Pelosi’s rescue had she been similarly embattled.

“They actually said to me early on, even Pelosi: ‘We’d never accept a motion to vacate,’” McCarthy claimed. (House Democrats could have prevented McCarthy’s ouster had at least eight of them voted against the motion to vacate.) About his relationship with Pelosi, or lack thereof, McCarthy said: “Look, on a personal basis, I don’t dislike her.” He added: “She’s the age of my mother. She’s a hard worker.” Whether or not McCarthy is masking animosity for Pelosi, it’s been clear for some time she thinks very little of him as a leader. 

McCarthy’s defense of Trump remains as dogged as it is typical of how he has managed his relationship with the former president. 

In the immediate aftermath of Trump supporters’ violent ransacking of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, a riot fomented by the outgoing 45th president’s unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was stolen, McCarthy held the commander in chief responsible. But within a couple of weeks, McCarthy had traveled to Palm Beach, Florida, to visit Trump personally, doing his part to rehabilitate the former president politically and reestablish good relations. 

Even now, absent any practical need to mollify Trump to preserve relationships with Republican members or pass legislation and support House candidates, McCarthy refuses to accept any criticism of him as legitimate. “Look, no one here is going to sit and say, ‘What happened on January 6 was right.’ I was appalled at what happened on January 6. I was here,” McCarthy said. “But from the same point of where I look, I watched what the Democrats did as well.”

“They never wanted to get to the truth,” he insisted. 

McCarthy argues House Democrats are culpable for security failures at the Capitol that day. “I never met with the sergeant-at-arms at that time,” McCarthy said, referring to the official charged with ensuring House security. “Even during January 6, he never called me.”

McCarthy also criticizes Democrats for blocking the Republican members he wanted to appoint to the House select committee Pelosi formed to investigate the attack. The McCarthy appointees Pelosi rejected, Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, are Trump allies whom Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans believe would have thwarted efforts to investgate the events of January 6, which was intended to keep Trump in the White House by blocking Congress from certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory.

House Democrats, he added, “never really wanted to get to the truth. [They] want to put a political narrative out there instead of being honest with the American public.” But would it be fair to say Trump was at least partially to blame? “Let’s have an honest, open look at it, not one politically motivated to try to drive something different.”

Only when assessing his own win-loss record does McCarthy seem to acknowledge that Trump fell short in at least one regard: He lost to Biden in the same election that House Republicans, led by McCarthy, picked up 14 seats held by Democrats. “Remember, as leader for those five years, I never lost. I only gained seats,” he said. “We were the only Republican entity with a winning record.”

Once McCarthy managed to secure the gavel in January, he scored an initial major victory when he forced Biden to negotiate a package to raise the federal borrowing limit that included curbs on expenditures and a blueprint for passing appropriations bills that would have limited future spending. McCarthy was successful where previous Republican leaders had failed because he unified his thin majority behind the deal, convincing House conservatives to support an increase in the debt ceiling (also a first for a GOP leader).

The agreement was a monumental legislative and political victory. But after Biden signed it into law, the insurgent wing of McCarthy’s majority, responding to criticism from conservative opponents of the deal, dropped their support for the component having to do with the fiscal 2024 appropriations bills. That proved to be the beginning of the end for McCarthy. He pinpoints the unraveling to some members who had an “emotional” reaction to criticism from conservative media personalities and social media agitators.

“Lots of times they don’t understand the complexity of the full bill and they react first,” McCarthy said. “There is a group inside the Freedom Caucus that would argue against Mother’s Day. They just want to fight. They don’t care about policy, they just care about fighting.”

By the time he was removed from leadership this year, McCarthy was caricatured by critics on the right, especially within the combative House Freedom Caucus, as an establishment sellout. He was despised among Republican opponents of the 45th president, and most Democrats saw him as a weak-kneed Trump toady who would do anything to obtain and keep power. 

McCarthy’s reaction? “If I got enemies on the two extremes, then I think I was doing all right.”

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.