McCarthy says immigration, abortion, economy to top election issues

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McCarthy says immigration, abortion, economy to top election issues

Graham Allison (left) and Kevin McCarthy speaking during the event.

Graham Allison (left) and Kevin McCarthy polling the audience.

Photos by Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

April 12, 2024


4 min read

Former House speaker also says Trump would likely win if election were held today in wide-ranging talk

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy may not be in politics anymore, but he still had plenty to say about who’s going to win the 2024 election, how to restore Americans’ faith in democracy, and how his brief speakership will one day be remembered during a talk Wednesday evening at Harvard Kennedy School.

Immigration, abortion, and inflation/the economy will be the core issues that decide the upcoming election, he said.

If the presidential election were held today, he predicted Trump would likely win, citing the decline in Biden’s favorability rating in polls since 2020 and a softening of anti-Trump sentiment among Democrats and Independents that may have driven record turnout last time. Division within that coalition over Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war could sink his chances in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, the only swing states that will truly be up for grabs in November, he added.

Kevin McCarthy.
“Seventy percent of America is not happy with who our nominees are — but we picked them,” said McCarthy.

“Biden is not Obama … and Biden is not the same Biden I knew 20 years ago. He does one event a month,” said McCarthy.  

McCarthy likes Republicans’ chances to pick up seats in the House and flip the Senate despite the current infighting among GOP representatives over bills to provide more aid to Ukraine and renewing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA).

McCarthy, a California Republican, spent 17 years in the House and was once part of a small group of young conservative lawmakers thought to be reshaping the party for the 21st century. He was elected speaker in January 2023 after 15 rounds of voting.

In October, McCarthy lost the speakership after only 10 months following a rebellion by hard-right Republicans who joined with Democrats to vote him out, 216-210. It was the first time in history a speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives had been forced out.

Comparing the House to a “truck stop,” McCarthy blamed his ouster on fellow Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, suggesting it was in retaliation for McCarthy’s unwillingness to halt an ongoing House probe into allegations that Gaetz had sex with an underage girl while in Congress.

 “I am not going to break the law and change some ethics complaint,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy, who presided over a notably unproductive 118th Congress, left office altogether in late December before his term had expired. Several other Republicans have followed suit in the last two months, leaving the GOP with a one-seat advantage over Democrats. Still, he says he “loved every minute” and believes “history will be kind to me.”

He defended Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who has called for the removal of the current speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana. Greene was part of McCarthy’s inner circle and is “a much better legislator” than the public realizes, McCarthy said, comparing her to another high-profile member, Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. 

McCarthy touted his own efforts to bring more bipartisanship to the House, saying “the system was so broken” when he took the speaker’s gavel in January 2023. He cited initiatives like loosening rules on how bills come to the floor, eliminating remote voting and metal detectors installed after Jan. 6 by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and launching movie nights and other recreational events in an attempt to bring Democrats and Republicans together “as a family.”

Asked by Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at HKS, how politicians can restore Americans’ trust in democracy, McCarthy said bringing more “sunlight” and “checks and balances” to elections is critical.

He noted that former President Donald Trump and his supporters were not the only ones to claim an election had been stolen, saying Democrats like Hillary Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, and House Leader Hakeem Jeffries made similar allegations about the 2016 vote. California, his home state, does not update its voter rolls, so ballots get sent to households without any verification that the requesters still live there, which undermines public confidence, he claimed. 

“We’ve got to go after the people who don’t trust it. Let them see the system we go through, and let them understand it,” he said. “It’s really not going to be the Secretary of State who cheats. It’s going to be somebody out there that’s so passionate about their candidate who’s going to steal a bunch of ballots.” 

Voters also bear some responsibility for the dysfunction and negativity in politics today, McCarthy said.

“Seventy percent of America is not happy with who our nominees are — but we picked them.”

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