WASHINGTON — She has called him a “moron.”
He has mused publicly — purely in jest, his aides later insisted — about wanting to hit her with the oversized wooden gavel used to keep order in the House.
The relationship between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the man who is most likely to succeed her should Republicans win control of the House in next month’s elections is barely civil. And as the moment of the possible succession draws closer, she has become less and less interested in masking her contempt for Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the top Republican.
At a news conference last week, when asked to respond to McCarthy’s claim that she was not allowing Democrats to speak out about what he described as a crisis at the border, Pelosi said of the minority leader, “I don’t even know what he’s talking about — and I don’t know if he does.”
The same week, her spokesperson, Drew Hammill, savaged McCarthy for a news conference he had held on the steps of the Capitol to discuss “firing Nancy Pelosi.” It was, Hammill said, “about par for the course for an uninspiring and incoherent politician like the minority leader, whose only real accomplishment to date is typing up a radical right-wing wish list that sends a clear message to the American people that House Republicans have gone off the deep end.”
And that was the edited version.
Pelosi, who at 82 is in her eighth year as the first female speaker of the House, specializes in emasculating takedowns of male counterparts she finds lacking. She perfected the art during Donald Trump’s presidency (see: ripping up the text of the president’s State of the Union address on camera moments after he finished delivering it).
Last year, she referred to McCarthy as “such a moron” for claiming that a mask mandate in the House was “not a decision based on science.”
McCarthy, 57, who made his gavel quip in front of a group of donors last year, has given Pelosi plenty of fodder for ridicule and ill will. After she barred Trump loyalists from joining the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, McCarthy said she had “broken this institution.” He has routinely labeled her a “lame duck speaker.”
But where McCarthy has accused her of partisanship and abuse of power, Pelosi, who colleagues say abhors spinelessness and stupidity, has accused him of acting like a buffoon.
After McCarthy delayed the House passage of Democrats’ marquee domestic policy bill last year with an 8 1/2-hour floor speech that at times veered into the nonsensical, Pelosi’s office called it a “meandering rant” and said, “As he hopefully approaches the end, we’re all left wondering: Does Kevin McCarthy know where he is right now?”
Her allies in Congress often point out that he appears to struggle with the basics of the English language. (McCarthy once said that Pelosi “will go at no elms to break the rules.”)
Partisan feuds and name-calling on Capitol Hill are nothing new. Former Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., used to refer to three of his Republican antagonists — Reps. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Bob Walker of Pennsylvania and Vin Weber of Minnesota — as the “Three Stooges.” But, according to Gingrich, the nickname was bestowed “in a sense of fun.”
And in recent history, speakers — who are partisan leaders but also are elected by the entire House, as dictated by the Constitution — have shown at least a modicum of respect to their counterparts in the opposing party, in a nod to their institutional responsibilities.
That is less and less the case for Pelosi and McCarthy. People close to her said she viewed the Republican leader not simply as an unserious legislator but as no kind of legislator at all.
In many ways, the two are polar opposites.
Pelosi prides herself on her virtuosic command of her fractious caucus and her ability to steer complex and high-stakes legislation through the often raucous House. McCarthy, who famously separated Trump’s favored red and pink Starburst candies from the rest of the pack and presented them to him to curry favor, has focused more on politics than policy during his career in Congress. In recent years, he has often catered to his conference’s most extreme members or to Trump.
“It’s hard for any serious person to respect someone better at counting Starbursts than votes,” Hammill said when asked for comment about their relationship.
While she did not have a close bond with the two Republican speakers who succeeded her in the past, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, their offices routinely worked together, and Pelosi never held them in such low regard. Pelosi has virtually nothing to do with McCarthy’s office, even behind the scenes. House Republicans did not participate this year in negotiations to keep the government funded.
Some Democrats said Pelosi’s public aversion to the minority leader is simply a symptom of the post-Trump political reality.
“This disdain is really part and parcel of where we are in the country between the parties and between people,” said Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., a former majority leader. “Congress is a reflection of the people. If the people are polarized and divided and hateful, then Congress is going to be the same.”
McCarthy and Pelosi were never close. But it was not always this bad.
McCarthy arrived in Congress in 2007 from the Central Valley in California the same year Pelosi made history as the first woman to be elected speaker. It was not until 2014 that he rose to a leadership position, and Pelosi was gracious at the time about working opposite someone from a conservative swath of her home state.
“I certainly know him as a Californian,” she said at the time. “I wish him well.”
She added, “We can all work together, because that’s what the American people expect and deserve.”
That same year, McCarthy had written a column for a new political website, Breitbart California, which he said would help fill a “void of conservative activism” in his blue state. But after the site ran a boorish photoshopped image of Pelosi in a bikini on all fours, McCarthy called the picture inappropriate and asked that his column be removed from the site.
In the intervening years, politics changed. McCarthy, playing the pleaser, earned the nickname “my Kevin” from Trump when he was in office. He helped to politically resuscitate Trump after the Jan. 6 attack, visiting him at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida estate; enlisting his help in the midterm elections; and fighting the creation of an inquiry into the Capitol riot.
Pelosi no longer pretends that they can work together.
“He literally ran away from the press when he was asked about his position,” she said at a news conference this year, referring to McCarthy’s refusal to condemn a Republican National Committee resolution that referred to the events leading up to the Jan. 6 attack as “legitimate political discourse.”
“Republicans seem to be having a limbo contest with themselves to see how low they can go,” she said then.
Many in California have speculated that Pelosi would resign if Republicans were to prevail in the midterm elections, bringing her 35-year career to a close.
In that case, when it came time for McCarthy’s big moment, she might not be there at all.