The Left's Kevin McCarthy Attacks Are Fuel for His Fire

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) record-breaking floor speech attracted predictable vitriol and condemnation from his political foes. But the outcome of the backlash is somewhat less predictable.

While high-profile critics on the left dutifully took McCarthy to task, it's unclear in what ways they will benefit from these attacks, or even that they will harm the top Republican in the House. In fact, they may boost him.

McCarthy has sought to show Republican voters that he is closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, who is still the center of the party after leaving office—and so have his opponents.

Who McCarthy is seen to be at loggerheads with on the left is equally important.

A notable point of criticism that drew attention was a viral video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) with Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) reacting to McCarthy's speech against the Build Back Better Act.

While such content serves to rally Democrats, it has little impact on the other side; the public ire of Ocasio-Cortez—a figurehead of the progressive movement—is something McCarthy likely welcomes.

"Provoking the wrath of progressives seems to be part of the Republican game plan right now," Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Center on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek.

"A good rule of thumb is: If AOC hates it, the GOP base will love it. So from McCarthy's perspective, the criticism he's receiving plays right into his hands."

Gift suggested that, for McCarthy, "the louder and shriller, the better" when it came to high-profile Democrats attacking him: "For Republican politicians, it's one thing to tell the base you're with them. But if AOC is going after you, the proof is in the pudding."

John Sides, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, similarly questioned the potential impact.

"At this point, the relationship between many Democrats and Republicans in Congress seems so bad that I don't think Democratic criticism of McCarthy is likely to make much difference," Sides told Newsweek.

Pelosi vs McCarthy

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was among those to join the criticism of McCarthy, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also took aim at his remarks, giving him some of the attention and reaction he was hoping to elicit.

Favorability polling highlights why Pelosi's attacks on McCarthy could backfire if her goal is to weaken him. Instead, owing to her own unpopularity, it may consolidate Republican support for McCarthy and win independents over to him.

A YouGov/The Economist poll conducted November 14 to 16 saw respondents asked whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of a number of political figures, including Pelosi and McCarthy.

Among those who identified as Republican, 84 percent had a very unfavorable view of Pelosi and among those who voted for Trump in 2020, 91 percent had an unfavorable view of her. Just 1 percent of each of those groups had a very favorable view of Pelosi.

For McCarthy, his standing among Republican identifiers and Trump 2020 voters was mixed. Of Trump voters from 2020, 15 percent had very favorable, 29 percent somewhat favorable, 16 percent somewhat unfavorable and 17 percent very unfavorable.

For Republican identifiers, this was 14 percent very favorable, 25 percent somewhat favorable, 17 percent somewhat unfavorable and 15 percent very unfavorable.

Those numbers show McCarthy has room for improvement among those on his own side—Republicans and Trump supporters. But the level of disdain towards Pelosi shows how he could utilize her focus on him to elevate his standing within his own party.

Moreover, among independents—the swing voters who decide elections—Pelosi has higher favorability than McCarthy, but also substantially higher unfavorability.

Of independents, 24 percent had a very or somewhat favorable view of Pelosi, while 65 percent had a somewhat or very unfavorable view; 11 percent said they don't know.

For McCarthy, many more were unsure; 33 percent said they did not know if their opinion was favorable or unfavorable, leaving good room for him to gain ground among independents who are typically more moderate in their politics than either side.

Eighteen percent had a very or somewhat favorable opinion of McCarthy, but only 50 percent had a very or somewhat unfavorable view—15 percentage points better than Pelosi had among independents.

'Shut Me Down'

On Sunday, Fox News' Sunday Morning Futures interviewed McCarthy, and he pointed to the criticism during his speech, suggesting Democrats had yelled at him in the House. It had gifted him with a distracting talking point.

"When I got onto the floor, what was so interesting [was] how bad they were fighting back with every word I'd say," McCarthy told the show's anchor, Maria Bartiromo.

"I know back home you can't really hear it or see it, but when you're on the floor you can. What's interesting, it was AOC and Tim Ryan. Those were the ones who would yell the loudest...They would scream from the other side, trying to shut me down.

"Then you've watched the speaker Nancy Pelosi come in and tap every Democrat to leave the chambers thinking I would stop. That's when I said to the American public, you can leave, it's OK, I'm not gonna stop.

"Because I'm not there for the Democrats, I was there for the American public and I'm still there for the American public because this bill if it passes the Senate won't be the same. It's gonna come back to the House. We can defeat it."

Trump praised McCarthy's address in a statement, suggesting that it had served a key purpose for the minority leader in strengthening that link with the former president, who has clashed with the California Republican in the past.

"Great job by Kevin McCarthy last night, setting a record by going over 8 hours of speaking on the House Floor in order to properly oppose Communism," Trump said in his statement.

2022

Democrats may see it as imperative to forcefully criticize McCarthy, and their supporters would probably take issue if they didn't. But the political benefits of stridently attacking McCarthy are not clear cut, particularly if doing so can work in his favor.

Early signs point to a Republican triumph in the midterms. The party has a good chance of taking the House or Senate—or both given how thinly the Democrats hold control in each. McCarthy will want the party and himself best placed to capitalize in the elections.

President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Congress are both mired in unpopularity. McCarthy evidently wants to pitch himself as a blockade to the purported excesses of Democrats. As they focus on him, Democrats give fuel to his narrative.

Should the GOP take control in the House, McCarthy will feel vindicated in his claim of self-styled resistance. And if that win is down to Trump acolytes and allies, McCarthy will have cemented his position in the GOP as a valuable instrument of Trumpism.

Democrats who wish to take the fight to McCarthy must consider the broader impact of their words and ask themselves if what they are doing is more of a help to the senior Republican than a hindrance.

Newsweek has contacted McCarthy and the Democratic lawmakers mentioned for comment.

kevin mccarthy at news conference november 18
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talks to reporters during his weekly news conference in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center on November 18, 2021 in Washington, D.C. He has faced criticism over his recent actions from a raft of Democrats. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images