On the one hand, McCarthy has to retain the loyalty of millions of Republican voters still wedded to former President Donald Trump. On the other hand, McCarthy needs to avoid going down the surreal and dangerous rabbit hole created by Trump and his “Big Lie” of a stolen election.
McCarthy fully recognizes the challenge he faces — and he has attempted to navigate it with mixed results. Right after the insurrection, he blamed Trump for his role in instigating the rioters. Then, McCarthy backtracked on that claim and made peace with Trump at a meeting at Mar-a-Lago. He did not vote for Trump’s impeachment and was instrumental in removing one of Trump’s foremost GOP critics in the US House, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, from her leadership position.
At the same time, McCarthy recently stated to reporters, “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election” — a claim that is sadly not true. And, unlike Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who McCarthy endorsed to replace Cheney in GOP House leadership, he has stayed mum on the absurd audit of 2020 election votes in Maricopa County, Arizona. Most tellingly, to date — and with the exception of Cheney — McCarthy has not joined in Trump’s politics of revenge and has not opposed for reelection any of the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump.
Most importantly, McCarthy recognizes the potency of the Trump policy record and the attraction it holds for voters, particularly Republicans. The vast majority of the GOP supported Trump’s tax cuts, his hard line on immigration, his judicial appointments, his “get tough” on Iran policies and his unflinching support for Israel.
However, the darker side of Trump’s record — his countless misleading statements and falsehoods, incompetent response to the pandemic and stirring of violence on January 6 — all contribute to his ranking as one of the worst presidents in US history. And they pose a threat to McCarthy in expanding the Republican electoral base.
But McCarthy may be able to overcome this hurdle if he can successfully use Democrats’ actions and words to balance himself on the political tightrope. The powerful combination of liberal overreaches and historical midterm election trends have proven disastrous for the last two Democratic presidents.
In 1994, former President Bill Clinton’s leftward drift and introduction of the Health Security Act, a health reform bill conservatives referred to as “Hillary Care,” contributed to Democrats’ loss of 54 seats and control in the US House of Representatives, which they had dominated for four decades. Similarly, after former President Obama and his Democratic majorities in Congress prioritized the Affordable Care Act, they lost over 60 seats in the House in the 2010 midterms — handing power to Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
Obviously, President Joe Biden and his congressional lieutenants are aware of this grim history, and they’ve been actively working to pursue issues that poll well with many Americans — including on Covid relief and infrastructure. But that doesn’t mean conservatives have not been able to attack them for other issues — including the recent gas shortages, a result of a ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline. Republicans seized on the huge gas lines in the South and along the East Coast to illustrate their disagreement with Biden on energy policy, his shutting down of the Keystone Pipeline and pauses in oil and gas drilling.
The GOP also recognizes that Biden’s handling of the border and immigration crisis during the early days of his administration is his greatest vulnerability. The Biden administration appeared slow to address the crisis — and even resisted using the word “crisis” — and the public has not looked favorably at his handling of the issue. According to an April NBC poll, 59% of respondents disapprove of his handling of border security and immigration — and that number jumps to 92% among identifying Republicans. While the numbers of migrants crossing the border has dropped in the last month, a perception of a border in crisis has been burned into the American psyche, and Republicans will undoubtedly use it in 2022 election ads.
Add to this a variety of issues that progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and other “Squad” members push, such as dismantling the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, defunding the police, packing the Supreme Court, and pushing the Green New Deal, and McCarthy has a veritable feast of red meat issues to offer up to voters. These headlines will continue to haunt Democrats and inflame Republicans, even though not a single one of these measures is likely to become law.
McCarthy’s challenge will be to guide the GOP’s agenda away from Trump’s obsession with the 2020 election and toward these issues that the vast majority of Republicans and a chunk of independents support. The fact that Trump continues to be banned from Twitter and Facebook, and that his much-ballyhooed blog has been a resounding dud will only help dilute his influence. However, Trump’s announcement that he will begin holding rallies again in June could complicate the House Minority Leader’s efforts.
If he survives this high-wire act, McCarthy should get The Flying Wallenda Lifetime Achievement Award. The good news for him? History suggests he just might.