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4 Lessons to Ponder After the House Picks a New Majority Leader

Anticlimactic has become the word to describe Thursday’s secret ballot to choose a new House majority leader. Everything points to a solid victory by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California; the only mixed signals are about whether Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho will receive more than 50 votes, a symbolic threshold because that’s more than one-fifth of the 233 members of the Republican Conference.  

Absent much suspense, it’s not too soon to consider the most important takeaways from the election. Here are four of them: Leading Is Different From Whipping. Legislative whips get their name from the vocabulary of fox hunting, where the “whipper-in” is the guy assigned to keep the dogs on task during the chase. Very few Republicans volunteer that McCarthy has triumphed at the job he’s had since 2011, and many describe him as a disappointment — while pointing out that the conference is filled with members who campaigned on a promise not to fall in line behind the old guard.  

There are plenty of high-profile examples of McCarthy’s setbacks as whip, including an inability to muster the votes for a payroll tax cut extension at the end of 2011, his failure to round up backing for Speaker John A. Boehner’s initial “fiscal cliff” bargaining position at the end of 2012 and embarrassing back-to-back floor defeats last summer for both a farm bill and a major domestic spending bill.  

But the aphorism from so many annual reviews — “You get your next position by succeeding at your current position” — seems not to apply in this case. His impending promotion means McCarthy won’t have to count or look for votes any more. If the No. 3 is like a plant manager, his eyes on the numbers every day, then the No. 2 job is like the CEO — deciding which bills to bring to the floor, and when to advance the strategic goals set by the corporate board chairman (the speaker).  

It Takes Somebody to Beat Somebody. That political tautology has come readily to mind the past week. The morning after Eric Cantor lost his Virginia primary, at least three members with more seniority than McCarthy, each with an important committee under his command, were being recruited to run for majority leader by clusters of conservatives seeking to upend the House GOP leadership establishment the Californian embodies.  

Less than 48 hours later, they had all demurred and McCarthy was running unopposed — while asserting he had the votes to repel any late-starting challenge. That’s what he got in Labrador, whose main calling cards are his catchy, if caustic, rhetorical style and his standing as one of the first underdogs propelled to Congress on the tea party tide. But he was totally flat-footed in starting the contest, lacking even a list of colleagues’ personal cellphone numbers so he could make his case while the House was in recess last weekend.  

The Leadership Track Has Changed. Both candidates have been in office less than anyone in modern times who’s climbed into the top echelons of the House or Senate power structure. (McCarthy is in his eighth year; Labrador has not yet finished his second term.) And neither serves on an exclusive committee or has ever wielded so much as a subcommittee gavel, which is also a significant departure from the traditional path into the leadership.  

Cantor was in office for a decade before becoming majority leader. Before he got that job, Boehner had been an Ohio congressman 16 years, six of them as chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. Nancy Pelosi of California and Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland each spent more than a decade on Appropriations before their breakout moves in the Democratic leadership. Stints chairing appropriations subcommittees were also the proving grounds for both Senate floor leaders, and the recent predecessors to both Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell all made their marks as top members of either Appropriations or Finance.  

The ability for a relative novice such as McCarthy to climb so high, so fast has a lot to do with the decline in the committee system. Now, power that’s not guarded by the leadership is often claimed by those in charge at the party campaign organizations. McCarthy got his big break as head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2010 takeover year. Two top leadership deputies across the Capitol, Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York, both got where they are after chairing Senate campaign operations.  

Biography Hints at Destiny. McCarthy is also positioned to become the first former congressional staffer who’s made it this high in the leadership since Tom Daschle, who worked for one of his predecessors as a South Dakota senator in the 1970s and was Democratic floor leader for a decade ending in 2004.  

McCarthy learned how to succeed at dealing with high-maintenance members by spending 15 years on the district staff of his predecessor, Bill Thomas, who was viewed as impossibly irascible even by his friends. But beyond that, McCarthy’s résumé is filled with the sorts of jobs that sound tailor-made for a politician’s life.  

He won $5,000 on the second day the California lottery existed, so he’s proved he can make his own luck. He used those winnings to open a restaurant dubbed Kevin O’s Deli, so he knows how to comfort constituents. He’s a certified firefighter, so he’s trained to get a quick handle on fast-moving trouble. And to pay for college he bought used cars at auctions in Los Angeles and brought them home to Bakersfield to resell — so he’s practiced at persuading others to do what their instincts argue against.