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Kevin McCarthy’s leaked recording shows that he’s the lesser of two evils in the GOP

Democrats delighting in the exposure of the House minority leader's lies, hoping they might derail his bid to become speaker, should be careful what they wish for.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was outed as a blatant liar when audio of him saying that then-President Donald Trump was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and should be pushed out of politics emerged publicly last week. The contents of the recording were first reported by The New York Times in a piece adapted from the upcoming tell-all book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future.”

In response to the Times’ report, McCarthy tweeted: “The New York Times’ reporting on me is totally false and wrong.”

Fallout over the McCarthy tape seemed to breathe new life into the most ardent pro-Trump corners of the GOP.

But the recording categorically refutes his denials.

The audio, from Jan. 10, 2021, aired on “The Rachel Maddow Show,“ following publication of the Times story. In it, McCarthy can be heard telling fellow Republican leaders, including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, that he was going to ask Trump to resign.

Fallout over the McCarthy tape seemed to breathe new life into the most ardent pro-Trump corners of the GOP, which believe that McCarthy should be replaced as House party leader by the far more Trumpy Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan. Many of Trump’s staunchest supporters in the House had already had enough of McCarthy’s leadership well before this latest controversy.

Replying to a Fox News contributor calling McCarthy a RINO (a Republican in Name Only) after the audio was made public, embattled pro-MAGA Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz tweeted that Jordan was “the hardest working and most talented member of the Republican House Conference. And every member knows it.”  

Unsurprisingly, Democrats responded with a mix of astonishment and elation when many learned of McCarthy being caught in a new series of bald-faced lies, thanks to another truth-bearing audio recording. (This also happened to him in 2017.)

Many pundits on the left erroneously leapt to the conclusion that such an overt abrogation of moral principle as the highest-ranking Republican in the House would be, in a practical sense, disqualifying for someone harboring ambitions to become speaker and third in line to the White House next year if the Republicans, as many predict, take back control of the House. 

Many Democrats also felt a certain sense of schadenfreude as they mused about the vexing political position McCarthy must have found himself having been outed — in a rare moment of pellucid candor — as being disloyal to Trump, raising questions about whether he could even survive in his party. 

But Democrats should be careful what they wish for, as McCarthy’s potential demise isn’t necessarily a good thing when considering the alternative. 

Yes, his behavior is despicable and cowardly. But here’s the thing: In the rare moment of candor in which a leaked recording has permitted the world to listen in, McCarthy at least seemed to have the ability to recognize when something is way off. At least he exhibited some modicum of human sensibility, enabling him to recognize gross injustice and culpability, if only to quickly sweep it under the rug for political expediency.

Make no mistake about it: What’s heard on the tape does not make McCarthy the “good guy.” And him telling reporters — a day after the audio was released — that he “never thought” the president should resign underscores that. 

But it could be a lot worse.

On one hand, we have a pusillanimous, prevaricating and somewhat feeble-minded leader who cows to Trump. But if these tapes ultimately take McCarthy out of the running for House GOP leader, we may be left with something entirely worse. We might be forced to reckon with a ruthless leader like Jordan as head of the House GOP — the same congressman who has refused to cooperate with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack and who forwarded a text message to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows forcefully pushing an unproven legal theory to try to get then-Vice President Mike Pence to object to certifying the 2020 election results.   

In the “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle wrote that “for the lesser evil is reckoned a good in comparison with the greater evil.” Although he penned those words over two millennia ago, he was aptly describing the situation the country finds itself in today, with one of its major parties having to choose between two different shades of awful when it comes to its congressional leadership. But let’s be honest: McCarthy is clearly the lesser of two evils. If someone like Jordan were to take the gavel of the U.S. House of Representatives, the nation would be stepping into very dangerous, uncharted territory.

Fortunately, criticism of McCarthy within the GOP seems to have dissipated somewhat as news emerged that he had called Trump to apologize after his audio became national news and that the former president was not particularly upset about the recorded remarks — a move that may muzzle grumblings about McCarthy among Trump’s legion of dedicated supporters in Congress. 

McCarthy knows that any path to the speakership depends on him continuing to be in the former president’s good graces. If he does not manage that, we might be left with Jim Jordan.