Skelton: Kissing Trump’s ring showed McCarthy can be bullied

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy weakened himself two years ago by berating then-President Trump for instigating the violent riot in the Capitol and then rushing to his golf resort to seek forgiveness.

That was the turning point for the Bakersfield Republican. It showed everyone – including future far-right opponents of his speakership – that he could be persuaded to back down. He had no firm beliefs. One could not trust his words. He lost respect from allies and enemies alike.

At least that’s how I imagine it. And he disappointed some politicians, advisers, and lobbyists who remember him as a trusted, direct-shooting Republican Legislative Leader in Sacramento.

McCarthy spent six years kissing Donald Trump’s ring to — now proven successful — elect enough members of the Republican House of Representatives to crown him speaker.

But by placating Trump and the far right, McCarthy lost credibility. That led to the Republican debacle last week, when it took four days and 15 ballots before the California native could be elected speaker. Meanwhile, he’s been pushed around by “Never Kevin” hardliners, who demanded and received concessions.

ok stay tuned That may be true, but it’s also simple. It’s not the whole story. The underlying truth is that the politics McCarthy grew up with in California and mastered are no longer as effective in polarized America as they were before Trump, before social media, and before Fox News.

McCarthy climbed the political ladder from volunteering for a congressman in his hometown to leading the US House of Representatives through building relationships and making compromises.

But for many of today’s demagogic politicians, relationships—even with leaders—are not as important as the social media clicks and cable TV interviews that allow them to communicate directly with a monolithic anti-Washington political base. They are being hailed for attacking and not collaborating with a potential speaker of the House of Representatives.

In this climate, the two-party system—an integral part of American democracy—is not respected.

When it works effectively, party faction members fight among themselves, then reach consensus on a leader and publicly rally behind the winner. McCarthy was backed by 91% of House Republicans, but 9% rebelled and stubbornly blocked his ascension for four days. That hadn’t happened in a century.

“Politics is a team sport,” says former Senator Dick Ackerman of Irvine, who was Republican Senate Chairman when McCarthy chaired the assembly’s GOP from 2004-2006.

“It’s like 11 football players come in and two guys decide they’re not going to play the called game. How is this supposed to work? It is not.”

In the polarized politics of this era, compromise has become a dirty word among extremists on both the right and left.

“For most of the 20th century, being a deal maker in Congress was considered a good thing. But during the speakership dispute, “deal maker” was an insult to McCarthy,” notes Dan Schnur, a political science professor at USC and UC Berkeley and a former Republican activist in Sacramento.

“The same ability that enabled Kevin to thrive in Sacramento has become his greatest obstacle in Congress.”

Well, yes and no. It’s ironic. House rebels have accused him of compromising principles – although experts agree he is unprincipled. But the rebels urged him to compromise on rule changes before they would allow his election.

The national drumbeat is that McCarthy coveted the speakership so much that he gave up much of his power to earn the office.

“There comes a time when you just have to say ‘no,'” says Ackerman.

Republican adviser Mike Madrid, who was political director of the state GOP when McCarthy headed the district office of former Republican Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, says:

“This is the story of someone who spent his entire career climbing the ladder of mollifying the right wing and almost being consumed by it. If you feed the alligators when you have nothing else to feed them, they will eat you.”

But the rap on McCarthy for giving away too much might be wrong. We don’t yet know how these rules will work. They may turn out to be relatively harmless. In legislatures, there are always ways around rules when there is strong-willed leadership.

The new speaker has been ridiculed for giving far-right Freedom Caucus members more seats on the powerful Rules Committee. But coalition governments are normal in most democracies. What is different here, of course, is that the coalition is strictly within the GOP. Democrats are excluded.

McCarthy will be remembered in Sacramento as a pragmatic centrist, personable and down to earth.

When he was minority leader in the assembly, Republicans were still relevant in the state capitol. Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor. The Democrats had a comfortable parliamentary majority, 48-32, but it wasn’t a supermajority like today’s 62-18. Unlike today, state budgets required a two-thirds majority, so the GOP was involved.

I wrote at the time that McCarthy was “primarily a dealmaker rather than an ideologue. A pragmatist, not a political purist. A political junkie.” Little has changed.

“He was very easy to work with, a straight guy – not someone who says one thing and does the other,” recalled then-House Speaker Fabian Núñez, a Democrat from Los Angeles. “He was very personable. And incredibly competitive.”

GOP adviser Rob Stutzman, who was Schwarzenegger’s communications director, recalls that McCarthy “would oppose Arnold if needed for the Republican faction.”

However, apart from one fleeting moment, he has apparently never stood up to Trump.

Last week, Trump tried to help McCarthy by urging hardliners to stop blocking “my Kevin.”

So it’s a mixed bag. When he crawled into Mar-a-Lago two years ago, McCarthy looked weak. But if not, would the Bakersfield native have become spokesman? We will never know. But he would be more respected. Skelton: Kissing Trump’s ring showed McCarthy can be bullied

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