WASHINGTON – Kevin McCarthy is about to ascend to the highest office in the House of Representatives and become second in line to the presidency.
But there is a problem: The speaker-apparent apparently still can’t speak.
I have been tracking the California Republican’s valiant but often unsuccessful struggles with the English language for some time now, and I was alarmed to watch him lose another round on Monday during a foreign-policy speech to the John Hay Initiative, a new outfit of the neoconservative bent.
“If I look at history of where we are it seems a lot like 1979,” McCarthy informed his audience in the ballroom of Washington’s St. Regis hotel.
“We must engage this war of radical Islam if our life depended on it because it does,” he opined.
“I have visited Poland, Hungria, Estonia,” he said, and also “visited in our, uh, the allies in the Arab Gulf.”
He has, furthermore, been informed that we “live on the greatest nation that’s ever been on the face of the Earth.”
McCarthy called for “an effective politically strategy to match the military strategy,” and he lamented that “we have isolated Israel while bolding places like Iran.” He blamed President Obama’s White House for “putting us in tough decisions for the future,” but he voiced hope that a “safe zone would create a stem the flow of refugees.” And he scolded the Department of Veterans Affairs for failing to assist returning servicemen “who fought to the death in Ramadi.”
McCarthy’s difficulties were particularly alarming, both because he was mostly reading from a text and because he’s about to enter a very public glare in which his every word, or attempted word, will be analyzed. With the death of Yogi Berra, the new speaker may become the most famous mis-speaker in America. But in a sense, it may not matter what he says, because his colleagues won’t be listening to him anyway.
In the fractured House GOP caucus, the backbenchers are used to leading their leaders, and it’s hard to see how McCarthy, who is popular but a newbie without a forceful personality, is going to do any better at holding his members together than John Boehner. He can either cut deals with Democrats, and be driven from the job like Boehner was, or he can surrender to his hard-liners and march with them over an electoral cliff.
Take foreign policy, the topic of Monday’s address. In a new book that the John Hay Initiative was rolling out at the event, the group calls for a massive increase in defense spending – to 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product from under 3 percent, not including the cost of overseas operations. If McCarthy were to attempt to get that through the House, he’d probably have his head handed to him by the budget-cutting conservatives in his caucus. The Hay group also calls for “the deployment of more U.S. forces” to the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including “extensive direct U.S. support.” If McCarthy supports that, he'll face a rebellion from isolationists in his caucus.
For now, it seems that McCarthy’s answer to such dilemmas will be the liberal use of platitudes. In his speech, he imagined what Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan would tell us today, and evidently they would speak in cliche:
“The second bit of advice I believe Lincoln would tell us: Don’t sit and blame others for your problems.”
And: “The fourth bit of advice would come from Reagan. He would tell us, speak the truth about our enemies and ourselves.”
McCarthy imparted other insights into his foreign policy philosophy as well: “Peace without freedom is meaningless. … We are exceptional and we are a force for good in the world. … The America we need and deserve is strong. … Strength and resolve brings peace and security. … America stands with its allies and challenges its adversaries.”
In a sense, his garbled language, by confusing everybody, could help him blur the differences within his caucus.
In McCarthy’s Monday address, Russia’s hybrid warfare became “high-bred warfare,” and restrictions on U.S. energy shipments became “the band on America.” He spoke of the “beth path forward to safety and security”; he asserted that Syria’s regime uses chemical weapons “to the very day”; he argued that the Soviet Union collapsed “because of America’s leadership and America resolve.” And he memorably rephrased the famous question asked of Republican presidential candidates: “Would you have gone to war if you knew what you knew now?”
Hard to say.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.