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In Kevin McCarthy’s 8-hour tirade, a rambling attempt to show he can lead the rancorous Republicans

House minority leader Kevin McCarthy gestures during a marathon speech Nov. 18.Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It was peak Kevin McCarthy — or at least, the Kevin McCarthy he set out to become the last time he was this close to being House speaker.

Over 8½ hours on the House floor one night and early morning this month, the California Republican and House minority leader unleashed an angry, pugilistic rant against President Biden’s roughly $2 trillion social spending and climate bill, seeking to paint it as wasteful government spending by out-of-touch Democrats. He fumed against gas prices, China, and inflation.

He hyped up fears of crime-ridden cities and undocumented immigrants and fentanyl. He bemoaned what he said would be the most expensive Thanksgiving ever for everyday Americans because of Democratic policies.

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“It’s all right, I’ve got all night,” he said to groans from the chamber not long into his remarks around 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 18 as the House was on the verge of voting on the bill. McCarthy then continued to speak and point his finger into the air until 5:10 the next morning, his forehead shimmering under the glare of lights, his bleary-eyed colleagues behind him resisting the urge to nod off.

For McCarthy, the marathon speech — a record for the House — was a defining moment, a crucial chance to show that he can lead a House Republican caucus that over time has become more radical, combative, and adept at obstructionism and media manipulation. It also looked much like an audition for House speaker, should the Republicans win the majority of seats in next year’s election.

The most rancorous members of the party, those in the House Freedom Caucus, derailed his first bid to be speaker in 2015, because they viewed him as an establishment moderate. But, as he railed and kept railing into the night earlier this month, McCarthy appeared determined to send his colleagues a message — that he could change, too.

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“This was a key moment for him to show leadership,” longtime Republican strategist Douglas Heye said. “In a party that values fighting so much ... that [speech] should bode well for him in a future speaker election.”

Earlier this year, McCarthy tried to balance his appeals within a House Republican caucus divided over Donald Trump and the violence he inspired at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

No longer.

The 2022 midterm landscape is looking promising for Republicans energized by the party’s upset victory in the Virginia governor’s race. And McCarthy appears to have decided to put aside his concerns over protecting the party’s establishment wing, as he squarely centers on tending a base still committed to Trump and the hardline, outrage politics he helped push into the mainstream.

The shift comes as McCarthy has drawn fire from Trump allies who fault him for failing to stop 13 House Republicans from voting for the Democrats’ $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on Nov. 5, securing its passage. And on the day before McCarthy delivered his all-nighter, former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows suggested the former president would make a better House speaker if Republicans gain the majority. (The notion is highly unlikely, yet not impossible, because there is no constitutional requirement that the speaker be a member of Congress.)

Another former Trump administration official, Peter Navarro, blasted McCarthy recently for removing all Republican members from the House’s special Jan. 6 commission except for Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, Trump critics who were appointed to the panel by Democrats. Navarro said that left Trump exposed as the commission investigates the events that led to the deadly mob attack on the US Capitol.

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“Kevin McCarthy made arguably the dumbest checkers move in a chess game I’ve ever seen,” Navarro told Yahoo News.

Trump and McCarthy have a complicated relationship. Trump sometimes referred to him as “my Kevin,” and McCarthy cozied up to him while he was president. But things have not always been smooth between them, particularly when McCarthy publicly criticized Trump in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack and reportedly floated a resolution to censure Trump. Though McCarthy reversed himself, Trump blasted him for criticizing one of his allies, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, for spouting conspiracy theories comparing mask mandates to the Holocaust.

McCarthy has responded by veering further to the right. He refused to take action against Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, who this month posted an anime-style video of him killing Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Democrats then voted on Nov. 17 to censure Gosar, which McCarthy and all but three Republicans opposed.

The next day, with many Republicans still seething over the censure of an outspoken Trump ally, McCarthy used a special House privilege known as the “magic minute” to buttress his right-wing credentials. The congressional procedure allows House minority and majority leaders to speak as long as they wish — and speak he did.

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Standing in his dark suit and red and white geometric tie, McCarthy employed the cadence of an obstinate salesman to repeatedly return to the same themes. He blamed Democrats for high gas prices and inflation, a chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, and increased federal funding for Internal Revenue Service audits, which he misleadingly suggested would “go after” families earning $75,000 or less.

He falsely claimed Democrats had “banned oil and gas” and refused to fund Israel’s air missile defense system known as the Iron Dome. He wildly exaggerated the contents of a Justice Department memo issued in response to threats of violence against school board members nationwide over mask mandates, describing it as a Biden directive to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “target parents as domestic terrorists.” And McCarthy incorrectly said that Biden’s decision not to reissue a permit for the Keystone pipeline had caused “more than one million people” to lose their jobs, when the actual figure was about 11,000 temporary positions.

“If I sound angry, I am,” McCarthy declared early in his speech. Throughout the night, he shouted so much his voice grew hoarse at times. He badgered Democrats who interrupted him or pushed back on his comments. When he was told to address the presiding officer as House rules require, he yelled in indignation.

“Mr. Speaker, I cannot believe the amount of control one-party rule wants,” he said, waving his hands up. “They now want to dictate to a member of the floor where I can look?”

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His wide-ranging remarks touched on his upbringing in a Democratic household, his friendship with tech billionaire Elon Musk, and “a little secret” about baby carrots (”They are just big carrots. They chop ‘em and they charge you more and you buy them.”). At one point, he spent four minutes ruminating on an 1851 painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. Often, he denounced the money earmarked in the social spending bill to help undocumented immigrants, whom he referred to as a slur and pitted against other beneficiaries of federal funds.

“This evening showed that no matter the time, the day, or the circumstances, House Republicans will always fight for you, fight for your family, and fight for our country,” he insisted as he ended the speech just before dawn on Nov. 19.

To some, McCarthy’s lengthy oration was a throwback to the one then-House minority leader John Boehner gave in 2010, when he opposed the Affordable Care Act with shouts of, “Hell no, you can’t!” That address was seen as an attempt by Boehner to ride out the arch-conservative wave of the Tea Party Movement, which formed to oppose former President Barack Obama. Its members — such as Meadows — eventually pushed Boehner into retirement in 2015 and prevented McCarthy from succeeding him as speaker.

Historians traced the roots of McCarthy’s performance to the Republican whose tactics helped inspire the Tea Party: former Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich, who abandoned congressional norms and developed the aggressive, no-holds-barred tactics now deployed by both sides of the political aisle. Before he became House speaker in January 1995, Gingrich used floor speeches televised on fledgling C-SPAN to speak unfiltered to Americans, control political messaging, and obstruct the legislative process.

Those strategies continue to be effective, particularly for Republicans, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at Princeton University.

“They have a massive media ecosystem — from social media to Fox [News] — that didn’t really exist in the 1980s and much of the 1990s,” Zelizer said. It’s “easy to circulate bits and pieces of what [McCarthy] did for a long time and to reach audiences predisposed to believing it was meaningful.”

McCarthy’s speech was mostly a stall tactic and did not change the outcome of the vote, although it did break the record for longest speech, previously held by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at eight hours and seven minutes. It likely won’t be remembered so much for its content as its duration and tenor.

That kind of tone — emotionally charged, angry — is good at getting donations and media attention, said Sarah Sobieraj, a sociology professor at Tufts University who studies US political culture and extreme incivility. “Being provocative in that way works,” she said.

It should also send a message to Democrats, who have continued to relegate their own most outspoken members to the sidelines as they struggle with intra-party dynamics, failing to coalesce behind a clear narrative for the infrastructure and social spending bills, said Reece Peck, assistant professor at the College of Staten Island under the City University of New York.

“The wakeup call for Democrats is this: You need to retool and put more investment in your communication strategies,” Peck said, adding that McCarthy’s rant came at a moment when many Democratic voters seem dispirited, while the the right-wing, conservative movement is energized.

For McCarthy, the speech veered at times into a manifesto of sorts, the pinnacle of a transformation he accelerated in 2018, when he sought to recast himself as an immigration hardliner and populist in the mold of Trump. It has been a sharp evolution for a politician who arrived in Congress in 2007 and became part of a trio of young Republicans who sought to move the party forward with a focus on a strong policy agenda.

But McCarthy has never been seen as fully committed to any particular conservative ideology and above all else — like Gingrich — has been devoted to the belief that you can’t dictate the agenda in Congress if you don’t hold the majority.

McCarthy is still viewed as the front-runner for speaker if Republicans take control of the House, so close now to his ultimate goal that “he can almost taste it,” said Mark Martinez, chairperson of the political science department at California State University in Bakersfield. But to get there, he is “embracing the most extreme elements of his party” to the detriment of his district, Martinez added.

At the same time, McCarthy is still facing the same challenge with Trump supporters that he did with Tea Party members a decade ago, said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications who served on Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.

“He has to convince them that they can trust him,” he said. “To that end, losing a valiant fight is almost as good as winning.”


Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.