Political Hay

Kevin McCarthy’s Elevation Would Show the GOP Has Learned Nothing

Did nobody notice Cantor's defeat?

By 6.17.14

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Kevin McCarthy was pleased as punch. He had gotten an award. So pleased he made a point of making an appearance in his district — Ridgecrest, California specifically — to pick up his prize, posting the inevitable local news story that resulted on his congressional website.

The Ridgecrest Daily Independent began its June 11, 2011, reporting this way, as McCarthy’s web site advertises:

Ridgecrest Daily Independent: McCarthy Receives The 'Spirit Of Business' Award

Ridgecrest, Calif. — Majority Whip made an appearance in Ridgecrest on Friday where he was honored for his pro-business voting record by the US Chamber of Commerce.

McCarthy took the opportunity to give a dire warning about the nation's finances if it can't get is spending under control.

But the day started off positively, as McCarthy was praised for his voting record to help business. He received the "Spirit of Enterprise" Award because he had a perfect seven for seven voting record when it came to business bill in the House.

The name of the award seems to be a matter of contention, but whether it was the spirit of “business” or “enterprise” the message is clear. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, having definitively put itself out there as the anti-Tea Party, anti-Reagan leader, loves Kevin McCarthy. Just as they loved Eric Cantor. And the Chamber, for all its money, is rapidly on its way to becoming a serious political liability for any candidate who takes its big bucks. 

With the results from Cantor’s massive defeat settling into the political consciousness, the question is now clear: Is the Chamber really about “business” and “enterprise”? Is Kevin McCarthy? Or is the Chamber — and are Mr. McCarthy and his enthusiasts — really something else entirely, prominent examples of what can well be termed the “Stockholm Syndrome” Republicans?

As noted in this space from time to time, this issue has arisen before. Biographer Steven F. Hayward wrote this way in The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989: 

Reagan…had to carry along a number of Republicans who were opposed to or lukewarm about his conservative philosophy. This problem would dog Reagan for his entire presidency. Influential columnist Robert Novak would observe in late 1987: “True believers in Reagan’s efforts to radically transform how America is governed were outnumbered by orthodox Republicans who would have been more at home serving Jerry Ford.” Harvard government professor Harvey Mansfield understood the challenge Reagan faced as early as 1980, observing, “The debate in American politics today, one can say with little exaggeration, is within the Republican party between those with ideas and the prudent distrusters of ideas.” 

Had it been within the power of the ‘prudent distrusters’ of the GOP Establishment in 1980, the party’s presidential nomination would surely have gone to Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Howard Baker, Bob Dole or John Connally before Reagan. By 1980 many Republicans in Washington could be considered victims of the political equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages come to sympathize with their captors. Having been in the minority for so long, many Washington Republicans had come to absorb the premises of establishment liberalism, preferring to offer a low-budget version of the Democratic platform.

Reagan’s dramatic landslide election in 1980, and the mandate it conferred, might be said to pose two problems: Democrats had to figure out how to oppose Reagan; Republicans how to contain him.

Thus the Stockholm Syndrome Republicans, who had spent decades absorbing the un-Republican, un-conservative notion of an all-powerful, always-and-forever-expanding federal government. From which they, in turn, would dole out favors to their cronies of the moment. Reagan put the challenge this way:

This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I'd like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There's only an up or down—[up] man's old—old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

Considering all of this history, look now at Mr. McCarthy. Here’s Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner:

If House Republicans respond to the shocking primary defeat of Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., by elevating his handpicked successor Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., it would be beyond tone-deaf. It would be pure absurdity.…

[I]t’s clear that in recent years, Cantor lost the trust of the conservative base and became a symbol of Washington. Whether it was on immigration or fighting to shrink the size and scope of government, Cantor was increasingly at odds with conservatives and far too cozy with business interests.…

[Cantor’s] defeat presents House Republicans with an opportunity to signal — ahead of the 2014 midterm elections — that they're listening to conservatives. But by elevating McCarthy, who is next in line as whip, they'd be sending the opposite message — that they're determined to crush conservatives.

Several groups placed McCarthy's voting record well to the left of Cantor's for 2013. The American Conservative Union rated McCarthy at 72 percent compared with 84 percent for Cantor; Heritage Action ratings place Cantor at 53 percent and McCarthy at 42 percent; and Club for Growth had Cantor at 68 percent and McCarthy at 53 percent. Moving away from conservative groups, the National Journal rated Cantor the 80th most conservative member of the House while McCarthy was 170th.

McCarthy voted for a Hurricane Sandy relief bill that included spending that was unrelated to providing emergency aid, fought for the farm and food stamp bill, fought reforms to the federal sugar program, and backed an extension of the corporate welfare agency known as the Export-Import Bank.

In January, he also supported a path to legal status for immigrants who entered this country illegally.

Got all that? There is a phrase in the vernacular for the McCarthy-for-Cantor substitution: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Over at Breitbart Reagan biographer Craig Shirley uses the phrase the “Obama Republicans” to describe this problem. And as usual, Craig nails the point exactly:

By the final years of the last century, some inside the GOP wanted the Reagan Revolution to be over, thus the phrase “compassionate conservative.” George W. Bush ran and lost the popular vote in 2000 without once ever calling for a spending cut or the elimination of one single wasteful federal program. After that, the GOP would continue to embrace the persona of Reagan—they had little choice—but no longer would they embrace the American conservative philosophy of the Gipper.

Hence, the stirrings of the Obama Republicans.

What has altered the storyline in the past several years is not the emergence of the Tea Party but rather the permanent entrenchment of Big Government Republicans, aka Obama Republicans. President Obama has had that much effect on the national debate, which has had a direct effect on the national Republicans.

The last gasp of principled conservatism may have come in 2010 with the rise of the Tea Party, but this also gave rise to the countervailing force of the Obama Republicans, resulting in the nomination of Mitt Romney in 2012.

In spite of losing five of the previous six presidential contests, it is the Obama Republicans who now rule the party apparatus of the GOP. Obama Republicans have also spread out among the state bureaucracies, the academies, Wall Street, Detroit, and nearly all of corporate America.

They have bought into Obama’s Oligarchy of big business and big government doing business together, at the expense of the little guy.

Obama supported TARP. Bush supported TARP. The ruling classes supported TARP. Wall Street supported TARP. Therefore, $750 billion—initially—was taken from the rest of the country to “rescue” the corrupt elites of Wall Street.

And never one prosecution or investigation. The greatest wealth transfer in American history and the elites of both parties were in on the score. The Republicans pulled off the heist and the Democrats drove the getaway car.

What we have is a battle that is about far more than who will replace Eric Cantor. McCarthy could win this election outright over conservative Idaho Congressman Raúl Labrador, all his victory will do is intensify the fight between the Reagan conservatives and the GOP Establishment.

Exhibit A of the backfire potential is this hilarious recounting in Breitbart of establishment-types attending a fancy, Mitch McConnell fundraiser for Mississippie Senator Thad Cochran at the headquarters of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Hours before it was realized Eric Cantor had not only been defeated but clobbered.

The headline reads: 

GOP SENATORS SCURRY FROM NRSC HQ AFTER MCCONNELL'S ‘ALL IN’ FOR THAD COCHRAN FUNDRAISER

The story begins:

A dozen or so senior GOP senators gathered with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) headquarters to raise funds for Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) on Tuesday evening.

Notably, none of them seemed too proud of it, based on how quickly they scurried away from the building—some outright declining to offer even a simple word of praise for Cochran—when asked why they were there.…

Senators who gathered to offer financial support for Cochran included Cochran’s Mississippi colleague Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), Rob Portman (R-OH), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), John Barrasso (R-WY), John Thune (R-SD), John Cornyn (R-TX), Bob Corker (R-TN), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Dean Heller (R-NV), Richard Shelby (R-AL), and McConnell (R-KY).

Cochran himself didn’t even show up for the fundraiser.

A Republican staffer told Breitbart News the mood inside the room—in which both Wicker and McConnell spoke—was somber. There was “a lot of looking at shoes,” the staffer said, and “a lot of people anxious to get out the door.” When Wicker and McConnell spoke, the staffer said, “what they didn't say was stunning.”

The story is replete with tales of exiting senators being tightlipped, evading or ignoring a reporter’s questions — slinking out red-faced as if just caught emerging from a bordello.

As if this wasn’t all laughable enough, there is one telling point that wasn’t mentioned in this story. The official name of the NRSC headquarters? That would be the “Ronald Wilson Reagan Republican Center.” And just why is Reagan’s name on the building? Because, yes indeed, it was Reagan’s landslide 1980 victory that won Republican control of the U.S. Senate for the first time since the 1952 elections.

Which is another way of saying, there is a distinct similarity between the elections of 1980 and 2010. When Republicans campaigned on conservative principle they won in a landslide. They captured not only the presidency in a 1980 landslide but the Senate as well. In 2010, filled with Tea Party energy, they won both the House and Senate — making Kevin McCarthy the Majority Whip. Where, power and majority status in hand, McCarthy proceeded to, as Craig Shirley has written in his description of the breed, buy “into Obama’s Oligarchy of big business and big government doing business together, at the expense of the little guy.”

The problem now — in Virginia and Mississippi — is that grassroots conservatives have had it. They have come to understand at a visceral level what Margaret Thatcher meant when she would talk about the effect of the “socialist ratchet.” The Left would move the country — Britain in her case — as far Left as they could when in power. Succeeded inevitably at some point by a conservative, the conservative would leave the country where he found it, which became “the Center.” Followed in turn by a Leftist PM, the country would resume its headlong move Left from what was once the “Center” — and the cycle would repeat. It was Thatcher — and in America Reagan — who fought to stop the cycle. It was the Bushes, admirable souls both but moderate Republicans both, who took the Leftist realities and added to them, from George H.W.’s tax increase to George W.’s Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind etc.

The Obama Era has at least accomplished one thing on the Right. It has graphically illustrated the perils of moderation. George W. Bush's Medicare Part D was an official GOP acknowledgment of the role of Big Government in health care — and then along came Obamacare. Bush backed away from Reagan’s effort to abolish the Department of Education and embraced a strong federal role in No Child Left Behind — and now under Obama’s 2014 request, federal discretionary spending on education rises by $3.1 billion, a 4.6 percent increase over 2012. And on.

Over at the Weekly Standard Bill Kristol sums up the Cantor defeat and the McCarthy rise this way:

The reaction in our nation’s capital [to the Cantor defeat], 90 miles away? Pretend it didn’t happen. Or if you had to acknowledge it happened, pretend it was of no significance. Or if you had to acknowledge it was of some significance, pretend it was merely a product of unique and local circumstances. Above all: Don’t draw any meaningful conclusions from what happened. And truly above all: Don’t change your behavior in any important way.

So the night after Eric Cantor’s defeat, the House Republican whip, the amiable Kevin McCarthy—the apparent frontrunner to succeed Cantor as leader because intelligent conservatives don’t want to compete for the privilege of serving as No. 2 to the amiable speaker, John Boehner—was telling a group of lobbyists pulled together by the Chamber of Commerce in a private room in a D.C. steakhouse: Don’t worry, nothing much will change, it will be business as usual in the House of Representatives. […]

The voters of the 7th District in Virginia have rendered, on behalf of their fellow Americans, a verdict of no confidence in the Republican establishment. This November, voters across America will render, we’re increasingly confident, a verdict of no confidence in the Democratic establishment. One could say that the establishments of both parties are “dead broke.”

When Arthur Greenwood rose to speak in the House of Commons on September 2, 1939, responding to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on behalf of the opposition Labour party, the redoubtable Leo Amery called out from the Conservative back benches: “Speak for England!” Will a Republican presidential candidate, in this moment of confusion and crisis, rise to speak for America?

The fight will go on. And a new poll reveals that in Mississippi Chris McDaniel has opened an eight-point lead over Thad Cochran. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent, according to this report at CNN, some $600,000 on Cochran’s first round in the primary. Now, the same CNN story from four days ago says the Chamber is coming back to dump a “significant” amount of cash into a pro-Cochran ad blitz. Setting up Mississippi exactly as the next Virginia — where the more the establishment spends money, the more they lose. The higher the Chamber profile, the bigger their candidate’s defeat.

Who will speak for America? One increasingly suspects it isn’t just Virginia and Mississippi alone.

Stockholm Syndrome Republicans are on the run.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.