BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – In the early 1990s, Kevin McCarthy was the fresh-faced, 20-something district director for Bakersfield’s Bill Thomas, one of the most respected and influential representatives in Congress, a policy guy who read the fine print.
When Thomas retired in 2007 after 28 years in Congress, he essentially handed the reins to his protégé, McCarthy, a popular homegrown figure long regarded as his heir apparent. McCarthy, a peerless fundraiser and team-builder, saw his star rise quickly in Washington – but over time Washington changed, or at least the Republican Party did.
And as McCarthy, who’d long made it clear he aspired to become Speaker of the House, aligned himself with his party’s far-right wing – the “Crazytown” caucus, as former GOP Speaker John Boehner called it – the gulf between McCarthy and Thomas, his one-time mentor, widened.
Just a few hours after McCarthy was voted out as speaker, having negotiated away his job security during the course of his protracted, 15-ballot election to the speakership nine months ago, Thomas stopped by KGET Studios to explain what happened and why, as he saw it.
Thomas suggested that McCarthy’s all-consuming desire to be speaker may have been his undoing.
“If you try to get elected speaker not on the first, not on the fifth, not on the 10th, not on the 14th (ballot),” Thomas said, “you really want to be speaker. And the problem is, a little thing in front of your desk that says ‘Speaker,’ and that’s all you have left is to hang on to the title, because you gave away all of the tools that you can use to get people to be part of the, quote unquote, team … It’s not available.”
Yes, McCarthy gave up all his bargaining chips on the first day, when he cut deals to win the support of the party’s far right, led by his chief antagonist, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz.
“That was the only job (McCarthy) ever wanted,” Thomas said. “He didn’t serve on committees, where you could become, to a degree, not an expert, but at least very knowledgeable, where you have a bankable skill… That was all he ever wanted. So it’s a pretty tough blow.”
What happens now, with the budget can merely having been kicked down the road, a scant 45 days to avert a shutdown, the House in a weeklong adjournment and no speaker to manage the negotiation?
“Where do you turn?,” Thomas said. “You’re not going to turn to those eight guys because the (former) speaker … gave up everything that you use to create counter pressure on your own party. So somebody’s got to reach across the aisle.”
That’s right. We’re looking at a government shutdown in 45 days unless the Republicans are willing to work with Democrats. The GOP’s right-wing demanded that McCarthy shun the Democrats, then ousted him anyway. Now what?
“At some point,” Thomas said, “somebody’s got to talk about reality.”