October 21, 2015
Like the metaphorical butterfly changing the path of a hurricane by flapping its wings a few weeks before, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy may have seriously altered the trajectory of the 2016 campaign by uttering a couple sentences about Hillary Clinton and the Benghazi Committee. Today, Joe Biden became the latest casualty of the storm.
This is not to suggest that absent McCarthy, Biden would have seamlessly assumed power from his boss in January 2017. The general election was by no means assured. Even the weakened Hillary Clinton of September wasn’t going away without a fight. A Biden-Clinton scrum could have created Nominee Bernie Sanders. Joe might still have decided no go.
But it unmistakably changed things. Hillary was already in mid-free media tour, putting her in position for maximum response. Having begun the circuit a couple weeks before, she was scraping off the rust. Clinton has always performed best when seen as a victim fighting back.
As this was happening, Biden backed away from announcing/running for the latest time, indicating he wouldn’t participate in the first debate. It was more important than it seemed at the time. When it happened, most of us focused on what it meant for Biden. Did it mean he wasn’t running? Was he making a mistake waiting? Would he run out of time? Was it tactics/strategy to see what happened with Hillary?
There are apparently two main types of Democratic primary voter, Progressives and Democrats. Most Progressives vote Democrat, though they are often registered Independents. Many Democrats have moderate to strong progressive leanings, but are party loyalists first. They worry about stuff like electability and stopping Republicans from controlling the executive and legislative branch.
Needless to say, Progressives currently favor Bernie Sanders, though some are very open to Hillary. Democrats are strongly for Hillary, though many like Bernie quite a bit. Democrats outnumber Progressives, especially in Southern and Border states, so Hillary is ahead. In New Hampshire, where the mix is far more even, Bernie thrives.
Absent the McCarthy gaffe, Democrats had plenty of reason to view Hillary with skepticism, particularly if Biden was an option. They didn’t turn on her, favorability ratings remained high, but they did worry about electability and her competence and strength as a candidate. Many of the purists were already with Bernie. Hillary’s core supporters never wavered. The decisive votes are with the remaining group.
With Biden (temporarily at the time) sidelining himself, the bias of the Democrat group moved from wait-and-see to rally-around-the-donkey. Team Hillary’s full-court press turned this in to a virtuous cycle. It also gave her (finally) a way to go on offense. Momentum continued into the debate. Rested, prepared, with the wind finally at her back, Hillary did well and the press pitched her comeback story.
The polling results were unsurprising, but left Biden in a bad spot. We may not know for days, months, or years if a different outcome would have led to a different announcement today, but if he was anything other than committed to jump in, it’s easy to see how it would have pushed him away.
Unimaginable from the view of a month ago, Hillary faces her hearing day tomorrow with a smile on her face. Her numbers are up, Biden is out and Committee Chair Trey Gowdy is now the one on defense. Speculation about the next speaker and Biden’s intentions even covered over the most recent release of emails, some of which were potentially damaging. Plus, Bernie doesn’t even want us talking about her damn emails.
McCarthy scrambled GOP weather patterns too. By Friday, Paul Ryan will either find himself taxiing down the runway as the most influential Republican speaker since Newt Gingrich, or back on the Ways and Means committee as the latest Freedom Caucus casualty. Either outcome is a huge deal for 2016, and neither was possible without foot-down-the-esophagus Kevin.
It’s not certain McCarthy had the necessary votes even without the faux pas. Freedom Caucus members were already determined to block him, this just gave them more justification. We don’t know if they would have voted for him on the House floor after voting against in Conference. It is certain mainstream House Republicans concluded finding a strong spokesman was crucial and worth making concessions on the time and fundraising responsibilities of the speaker over.
Pre-McCarthy, they thought Ryan would be a great choice and wished he felt differently about serving, post-McCarthy he became a necessity. His presence gives a ton of power to the Freedom Caucus. Ryan is a very big fish, the most recent VP candidate and someone widely respected by Democratic legislators and media types. This of course does not help him with the final hurdle.
If they ultimately reject Ryan, by far the strongest candidate the 200 or so non Freedom Caucus members can come up with, the outsiders will control the GOP House delegation from now until Election Day. Ryan will not take the job if he feels a sword dangling over his head, and the Freedom Caucus will not yield if they feel Ryan will not adequately represent them.
At this moment, it’s completely up in the air if he will be able to satisfy them and himself at the same time. Speaker Ryan would have a major impact on the nomination contest. If things go well for him, Republicans could put together the Rubio-Ryan ticket many dreamed of a couple/few years ago, only with one of them in the House.
If he proves unable to keep the Freedom Caucus on board, either preventing him from taking the job now, or executing it later, it indicates the establishment forces are up against their toughest challenge since 1964, possibly ever. The stature and qualifications gap between Ryan and whomever the ultimate alternative would be is far greater than that between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
If 80% of the House delegation can’t push Ryan through, assuming it’s anything other than an uphill battle to nominate a mainstream Republican is a mistake. In previous cycles, a credential battle at the convention often signalled which side would win. In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower’s forces defeated Robert Taft’s in a fight over the Texas delegation. In 1976 President Ford narrowly squeaked past Ronald Reagan in a unit rule vote. Both times the establishment won.
Now, we see an equivalent struggle many months early, and perhaps with greater implications. Nominations may not go to the convention anymore, but there is still room for a proxy fight. Interestingly, Hillary’s McCarthy-aided comeback may add to the drama.
For the pro-Ryan forces, this is a reminder Clintons are hard to defeat, an argument for sanity and moderation, a reason to put the best, least-threatening communicators possible in front of the small persuadable slice of the electorate. For the Freedom Caucus and supporters of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and possibly Carly Fiorina, Hillary is a flawed, wounded political animal with poor national approval ratings. The only way to lose is to serve mush.
Either way, whether by unifying Democrats or heightening the stakes in the GOP Civil War, we’re all living in the world McCarthy wrought.