Last Friday afternoon, as Democratic leadership headed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi planned to announce its plans to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, I caught House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy walking past the press scrum. He seemed amused. And why wouldn’t he be? Republicans had just won the governorship in Virginia, a bellwether that they might win the House in 2022. Meanwhile, Pelosi was scrambling to pass that infrastructure bill without a vote on Build Back Better, Democrats’ social spending bill that progressives have prioritized.
But by the end of the evening and way into Saturday morning, Pelosi had every reason for an extra scoop of dark chocolate ice cream at early breakfast when all but six members of her caucus voted to send the bipartisan infrastructure bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. Furthermore, moderate Democrats pledged to pass the social spending bill that includes an expanded child tax credit, provisions to combat climate change, child care, increased money for home care for elderly people and people with disabilities, immigration reform, and hearing coverage for Medicare recipients.
Despite constantly being portrayed as a San Francisco liberal by conservatives and the main roadblock to progress by left-wing Democrats, there is probably no better legislator alive than the daughter of former Baltimore mayor Tommy D’Alesandro. (If you watch the opening credits for the third season of The Wire, which is based in Charm City, a Pelosi campaign poster shows up in a bar).
Meanwhile, McCarthy is bound to get an earful from Donald Trump after 13 Republicans defected from his caucus to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. This was the fourth time this year McCarthy failed to unite his caucus. Instead, Pelosi got seven more Republicans than she needed to plug in the hole of defections from her own party.
This dichotomy reveals that even as Democrats are bound to lose the House, they have been blessed with one of the most talented Speakers in Pelosi: No other leader can wrangle both the moderates and the progressives so expertly. Meanwhile, Republicans are increasingly likely to win back the House (they only need eight seats to win the majority), yet McCarthy is not guaranteed to become Speaker and, more importantly, has a total inability to unite his own party. Pelosi will go down in the history books, while McCarthy is utterly forgettable.
The infrastructure bill isn’t even Pelosi’s first major legislative accomplishment. Similar to how Democrats were reeling after a bruising loss in Virginia, recall when Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat in Massachussetts and Barack Obama’s then-chief of staff wanted to just pass health care for children. But Pelosi rebuffed the proposal as “kiddie care” and instead passed the bill the Senate passed, which gave Obama his titular health care law.
Pelosi held the line during Donald Trump’s presidency to the extent that not a single Democrat in the minority broke rank during Republicans’ attempts to repeal Obamacare. When Democrats won back the majority in 2018, she shepherded both of Trump’s impeachments in, and the infrastructure bill is the latest feather in her cap. If the House sends the Build Back Better bill to the Senate and it reaches Joe Biden’s desk, she can easily be considered the most effective Speaker of the last 50 years.
Conversely, McCarthy has proven to be an utterly unremarkable leader of the Republican caucus since even before he took control in 2019. In 2010, he and then-rising stars Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor touted themselves as The Young Guns. But more than a decade later, McCarthy is the only one who remains: Cantor faced a revolt in his own district and lost his primary; and Ryan, once the darling of DC wonks for being able to use charts while giving puppy-dog eyes, left as House Speaker after two years of dealing with Trump.
Whereas the other two were astute politicos and Speaker John Boehner had the gravitas and bravado of a man who enjoyed his Merlot and Camel cigarettes, McCarthy seems indistinguishable, save for his ability to sort out which Starbursts Donald Trump enjoys.
The defections on infrastructure were just the latest indignity of his time as a leader. As a mob stormed the Capitol on January 6, McCarthy reamed Trump and urged him to call off the riot, but Trump seemed wholly uninterested. Similarly, McCarthy initially supported creating a “fact-finding commission” before ultimately opposing such a commission. But in both instances, McCarthy faced major defections, with 10 Republicans voting to impeach Trump and 35 Republicans voting to create a commission (both impeachment and the commission died in the Senate). Similarly, last month, nine Republicans voted to hold former Trump adviser Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress.
The discipline with which Pelosi leads her caucus compared with McCarthy’s fecklessness is perhaps why 60 percent of Capitol Hill aides in Punchbowl News’s survey see Pelosi as the most powerful leader on the Hill and absolutely zero see McCarthy that way. It would not be a surprise if, in the event that Republicans do win back the House, some lean and hungry Republican were to knife him publicly.
This isn’t to say that Pelosi is without her flaws or that McCarthy isn’t in a good spot to win back the majority. She frequently has given Republicans easy campaign fodder, such as when she said the House needed to “to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it,” which Republicans played on loop to win the House in 2010 and run against Obamacare. She also went back on her word that she wouldn’t pass the infrastructure bill without Build Back Better, and the agreement from moderates to vote for the bill comes with significant caveats. Conversely, McCarthy seems to get along better with the more conservative members of his caucus like Jim Jordan who were a thorn in Boehner and Ryan’s side.
But as Pelosi likely faces what could be her last term (she promised moderates in 2018 that she would retire at the end of this Congress), it’s unlikely that anyone else could herd a caucus as diverse as Josh Gottheimer, a moderate from New Jersey, and Pramila Jayapal, the leader of progressives in the House, who walked in tandem to vote together.
Meanwhile, when I caught McCarthy walking onto the House floor before a vote and tried to ask him questions as he walked past the metal detectors, he didn’t say a word to me. A few minutes later, 13 Republicans defected.
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