Rep. Kevin McCarthy was not the tea party choice, and with reason. He came of age in Sacramento, where conservative Republicans either learn to get along, or, as in recent decades, they get pretty much nothing. McCarthy was the Republican leader when moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor of California, and McCarthy gets credit both for standing up to the governor on behalf of his caucus and for working with him — and with Democrats — to get things done. He was the kind of guy who denounced the governor for picking a pro-choice Democrat as his chief of staff and then worked with her to smooth her relationships with legislators. He did not go looking for fights. He is, in short, no Newt Gingrich or Eric Cantor.
So why did House Republicans, supposedly traumatized by Cantor’s loss, trembling in the wake of the earthquake and seeking to avoid being in the wrong place for aftershocks, so overwhelmingly reject the more conservative candidate, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho (whose rhetoric in support of helping the poor, providing security to the middle class and not cozying up to special interests sounded downright liberal to me), in the race to replace Cantor as the No. 2 Republican in the House?
If everyone on the Republican side is as terrified of the tea party as an earthquake should make you, how come the leadership in Congress includes exactly no one from the tea party? Is the establishment crazy? Or are they crazy like a fox?
The short answer to how McCarthy won seems, from all reports, to be old-fashioned politics. In his years in the House, he has taken the lead in recruiting Republicans to run and helping them raise money; he has mentored countless members trying to figure out how to navigate the House and keep getting re-elected. All politics is local, and the House is a neighborhood of its own. McCarthy has been an effective, solicitous and generous block captain, which matters a lot to people whose primary goal, for understandable reasons, is not to find themselves unemployed in two years or less.
The long answer is more complicated. From the outside, it’s easy to assume that the heart of the conflict between the “hard-core” conservatives in the tea party and the establishment Republicans is social issues. But that was the last war, when putting gay marriage on the ballot might help, not hurt, Republican candidates, when running hard against abortion was a winning strategy. The conservatives won that war. Most of the establishment Republicans are as anti-choice as the tea party candidates, which doesn’t necessarily help them in statewide or national elections, and certainly doesn’t earn them a “pass” from the tea party.
What divides establishment Republicans from the tea party at a more fundamental and potentially explosive level are attitudes toward “big business” and “Wall Street” and the “Chamber of Commerce” view of America instead of the average person’s view.
The tea party is a populist movement consisting of people who vote. What divides establishment Republicans from the tea party is the mother’s milk of Republican politics in Washington D.C.: money. The Jeb Bushes and Kevin McCarthys of the Republican Party do not raise the tens of millions of dollars it takes to keep the Republican re-election machine running from the desperate poor or insecure middle class whom Labrador championed.
McCarthy is reported to be someone who can’t eat dinner without seven other people at the table. Most of those people, one expects, are people who need his help — who need his help on an issue, who need his help holding on to their seats. He helps. That is the job of a leader in D.C.
What passes for mother’s milk is in fact poisoning the political process, but the tea party does not yet have the power to change that, and that power will not be given up easily by the establishments of either party — nor will it be easy to take it from them.
Susan Estrich is a law professor in Southern California and managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis.