Political leaders are usually at their best when they first take office.
Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is far from certain of gaining enough support within his own party to become House Speaker next month. But, even before the vote, his authority is eroding by the day, to the point where he may become a speaker in office but not in power.
After a disappointing midterm performance, the GOP House majority that takes over in January would be a fragile governing mandate for any party at any time in American history. And the ideological battle being waged within the party by pro-Donald Trump extremists would have made even a more comfortable majority volatile.
However, the compromises that McCarthy is facing in his increasingly bitter campaign for the speakership threaten to turn him into a tool of his conference’s most radical members, potentially limiting his ability to hold the job in the long term.
The California Republican is fighting a rearguard battle against members who want to make it easier to oust a sitting speaker, and he’s appeasing ex-President Donald Trump’s extremism, as well as that of acolytes like Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, to save a narrow political power base that supports his dream of becoming House Speaker.
McCarthy, once an affable and smooth-talking Republican rising star, has adopted some of the confrontational defiance of the “Make America Great Again” movement, appearing to seek out soundbite clashes with the press as badges of honour.
Given that he can only afford to lose four votes in order to be elected speaker – and then pass legislation – it would take a political genius to rally the Republican conference. McCarthy is widely popular among Republican lawmakers and a prolific fundraiser, but nothing in his career thus far suggests he is a leader of that calibre. In fact, he appears to be less of a heavyweight than former Republican Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who were forced out of politics due to the impossibility of running a riotous Republican majority.