Early in the morning of Saturday, January 7, Kevin McCarthy of California was elected speaker of the House of Representatives. McCarthy won after days of struggle among Republicans and 15 rounds of voting. His opponents relented after he agreed to a host of demands that deliver unprecedented authority to the House Freedom Caucus, a group of more than 50 representatives who are to the right of both their conference and their country. “I’ll be honest,” McCarthy admitted. “It’s not how I had it planned.”
You don’t say.
As the fight over speaker played out on the House floor, I kept noticing references online to Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders, the 2010 memoir and campaign manifesto that McCarthy co-authored with fellow Republican congressmen Eric Cantor of Virginia and Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. A copy of the book sits on my desk as I type. Its title and cover photo are drawn from an issue of the Weekly Standard published in the autumn of 2007, when congressional Republicans were in the minority. Although I didn’t contribute to that issue, I worked at the Standard from 2003 to 2011 and was present at the creation of the “Young Guns” concept.
The Weekly Standard’s executive editor, Fred Barnes, had identified McCarthy, Ryan, and Cantor as future leaders of the GOP and architects of a Republican comeback. He came up with the idea of linking them together. Barnes profiled Cantor, and two junior reporters wrote articles on Ryan and McCarthy. For the cover, art director Lev Nisnevitch photographed the three men standing in a row on a balcony in the Capitol overlooking the National Mall.
Now only McCarthy remains. Barnes’s intuition that Cantor, Ryan, and McCarthy had potential proved correct, but, as he would be the first to say, the future in politics is never a straight-line projection of the present. The same forces that gave Republicans control of the House in 2010 eventually expelled Cantor and drove Ryan out. The Weekly Standard itself ceased publication in 2018, another victim of the changing character of the GOP and American right.
The Twits and trolls who circulated the cover of Young Guns on the Internet and snarked that McCarthy would be the next to fall were onto something, though they’d never be able to articulate it. McCarthy has survived and become speaker not because he belongs to some illusory “establishment,” but because he has been able to accommodate and bend to the will of populist insurgents within the GOP. The original “Young Guns” belonged to a Republican Party from a different era.
The dividing line, apparent in retrospect, was the global financial crisis of 2008. House conservatives were angry with President George W. Bush’s immigration plans and government spending throughout his second term, but they grew apoplectic when he asked Congress to approve a $700 billion bank bailout in September 2008. Then–GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio tried to persuade his conference to go along with the plan. He, Cantor, and Ryan supported the measure when it came to a vote on September 29. McCarthy and 132 other House Republicans voted no. The bill failed. The stock market crashed. A panicked Congress scrambled to flip votes, and a revised bailout passed on October 3. McCarthy, it’s worth noting, remained a no.
The combination of economic calamity and an unpopular war in Iraq brought President Barack Obama to office in 2009. Within a month of Obama’s inauguration, CNBC personality Rick Santelli delivered a rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where he called for an end to additional bailouts, fiscal stimulus, tax hikes, and financial regulations. The traders around Santelli applauded when he said, “President Obama, are you listening? We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July.” A movement was born. Grassroots protests sprang up across the country to oppose Obama’s agenda.
For the Tea Party, the bailouts not only represented Big Government. The bailouts were perfect expressions of an aloof and self-indulgent elite that paid no price for its mistakes and whose recklessness endangered the American experiment. The Tea Party, like Obama, saw itself as “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Except the Tea Party wanted not social democracy but an end to the form of government that had produced financial disaster and failure in war. That goal required nothing less than purging the GOP of its pre-2008 sensibility and elites.
The energy that fueled the Tea Party was often described as “anti-establishment,” but it is better seen as “anti-systemic.” To varying degrees, its adherents wanted to overthrow the political and bureaucratic arrangements—either by limiting government or by simply burning everything down—that they believe generated failure. Thus, the Tea Party challenged incumbent Republicans who had voted for the bailout or participated in a corrupt system with as much gusto as it fought Democrats.
The irony of the 2010 election, when the GOP picked up 63 House seats, was that this post-2008 rebellion elevated pre-2008 leaders. Boehner became speaker, Cantor became majority leader, McCarthy became whip, and Ryan became chairman of the Budget Committee. It quickly became apparent, however, that Boehner was uncomfortable around the Tea Party freshmen. He didn’t know how to deal with them. “Under the new rules of Crazytown,” Boehner wrote in his memoir, “I may have been Speaker, but I didn’t hold all the power.”
Boehner clashed with the Tea Party over the debt ceiling in 2011, the fiscal cliff of potential tax hikes at the end of 2012, and the Rube Goldberg–like attempt to defund Obamacare that shut down the government in 2013. In the spring of 2014, a Tea Party candidate primaried Eric Cantor and defeated him. McCarthy became majority leader. Boehner knew he was the Tea Party’s next target.
By the end of 2015, his patience with the post-bailout GOP was exhausted. Boehner resigned from Congress, and Paul Ryan, then chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, took over as speaker.
The Tea Party, institutionalized in 2015 as the House Freedom Caucus, loved President Trump’s combativeness, his brinksmanship, and his resentful and conspiratorial mindset. Under Trump, Speaker Ryan corralled the House GOP into passing a long-sought-after tax reform, but by the end of 2018 he too had grown tired of managing a conference whose lodestars were Tucker Carlson, the Freedom Caucus, and its reality-television president. Ryan resigned that year after Democrats won the House, and McCarthy became minority leader.
Speaker McCarthy is neither an ideologue nor a wonk. He is a classic politico whose primary interest is the mechanics of building a majority, and whose adaptability has served him well in climbing to the top of the greasy pole. More trouble lies ahead, however. Among the unintended consequences of the 2022 midterms was that an electoral repudiation of extremism gave us a narrow Republican majority that empowers extremists. To appease this faction, McCarthy, the last of the Young Guns, handed the car keys to reckless drivers within the populist, nationalist, post-bailout GOP. He will need all his cunning and unscrupulousness in the days ahead—assuming he is still speaker by the time you finish this sentence.
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