House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), widely considered to be the frontrunner to replace John Boehner as Speaker of the House, endured an extended grilling from Sean Hannity Tuesday night. The Fox News host pressed McCarthy for commitments to use Congress' power of the purse to defund Obamacare, President Obama's executive amnesty, and Planned Parenthood. McCarthy appeared to pledge to fight for all of those priorities as Speaker, qualifying his statements by cautioning that he'll first have to formulate a strategy to win. The video, followed by some analysis:
(1) On the constitutional "power of the purse" point, McCarthy strangely fails to mention that House Republicans tried, and failed, to assert that power in the government shutdown of 2013. The House of Representatives passed a number of spending bills that funded the federal government while defunding and delaying Obamacare. Senate Democrats, then in the majority, rejected the House bill, backed by a firm White House veto threat. This impasse resulted in a partial government shutdown, during which the Obama administration played every cynical card in the "shutdown theater" deck, deliberately inflicting as much pain and inconvenience upon ordinary Americans as possible in hopes of applying pressure to Republicans. Harry Reid refused to fund parts of the government on a piecemeal basis, even dismissing a GOP move to restore NIH funding for children's cancer research, infamously asking, "why would we want to do that?" Sure enough, the public overwhelmingly held the party of smaller government chiefly responsible for the unpopular shutdown. With Democrats refusing to budge an inch and polling growing uglier by the day, Republicans finally agreed to re-open the government, having gained virtually no concessions at all. President Obama and the Democrats had zero political incentive to compromise, plus they held the power to thwart Republican priorities. In short, the GOP fought and lost; fortunately, lasting political damage from the shutdown was largely averted thanks to the Obamacare rollout meltdown that unfolded in the months that followed, rebuilding momentum for the 2014 Republican sweep.
The same political dynamic applies to the Planned Parenthood funding battle today: Obama will never, ever sign a spending bill that strips federal money from the abortion giant. This is a presidential red line that Obama, a radical abortion warrior, actually takes seriously. The shutdown-averse public is also strongly opposed to a funding showdown over this issue. With Barack Obama in the White House, there are very few constitutionally-viable avenues through which Republicans can actively reverse his agenda. That's a galling reality, but a reality nonetheless. And while the Republican-held Senate has disappointed on several significant occasions, even if they abolished the filibuster to bypass Harry Reid's obstructionism, that 'nuclear' tactic would merely lead to a parade of vetoes from Obama -- who's clearly demonstrated that he couldn't care less about public opinion or bipartisan consensus. Engaging and escalating political fights without any plausible path to actual, tangible victory is malpractice. That's the point Boehner was likely trying to make with his "false prophets" remarks, which Hannity calls "despicable." Perhaps a better way of phrasing this sentiment would be to say that conservative leaders cannot continue to make promises and erect expectations that cannot be kept or met. This fosters an environment that breeds simmering frustration and feelings of betrayal.
(2) McCarthy's answer on House Republicans' accomplishments is weak. He focuses on the select Benghazi committee's impact on Hillary Clinton's polling numbers, noting that nobody would have known about her email scandal "had we not fought." Hannity concedes this point -- and McCarthy is right. But his messaging and emphasis heavily implies that the purpose of the Benghazi committee was to hamper Mrs. Clinton's political fortunes, rather than get at the truth. As the Washington Post points out, Boehner has always been careful to underscore that Trey Gowdy's panel is solely committed to discerning the complete truth about a terrorist attack that resulted in the murder of four Americans, including a sitting ambassador, and about which Hillary Clinton and the administration have been less than forthcoming. McCarthy's answer needlessly lends credence to the Democratic attack line that the investigation is nothing more than a partisan fishing expedition, a complaint quickly reiterated by a Clinton spokesman:
Speaker-in-waiting confesses what the true goal of taxpayer-funded Benghazi Commitee is. https://t.co/62NgqyGpBE— Brian Fallon (@brianefallon) September 30, 2015
McCarthy could have couched his point in a savvier way, reiterating that the primary task of the Benghazi committee is to seek facts and ensure accountability, then mentioning that an unexpected byproduct of their work has exposed astonishingly irresponsible conduct by the Secretary of State regarding state secrets and her improper, unsecure email scheme. Instead, he seems to count the panel's discovery as a chief accomplishment of the Republican Party, eroding the legitimacy of Gowdy's important work. Why not cite House Republicans' ability to arrest and stall Obama's spending binge? (Hannity, not McCarthy, mentions in passing the GOP's enforcement of the sequester spending caps in the face of Obama's disingenuous demagoguery). Why not tout the House leadership's unceremonious killing of the Senate-passed 'gang of eight' immigration bill, or the Senate-passed Ex/Im bank reauthorization, both of which had drawn conservative ire? McCarthy's rhetorical choices and framing in this interview are a bit worrisome coming from a man who's poised to become one of the most prominent Republican messengers in the country.
(3) One point McCarthy raises near the beginning of the discussion is an important one, though it gets lost in the shuffle. Terms like "reconciliation" may sound arcane, but Paul Ryan's memo detailing Republicans' strategy to use a budgetary maneuver to pass bills that repeal major elements of Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood is a positive development. After the 2010 election of Scott Brown, which furnished Senate Republicans with the ability to launch filibusters, Democrats used reconciliation to jam Obamacare through both houses of Congress. The GOP appears poised to finally use the same method to achieve some of its policy ends. If and when Republican majorities pass these measures, Obama will undoubtedly use his veto pen to reject them. But at least they would have gotten legislation reflecting their priorities onto the president's desk. Again, genuine victories have been and will be few and far between so long as the current occupant of the Oval Office is in charge, but forcing vetoes is at least a strong step in the right direction of restoring trust with conservative voters.
House GOP leadership elections have been scheduled for Thursday, October 8th.