House GOP: Don't Give In to Far-Right Bullies
Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s stated rationale for ditching his speakership bid was “We should put this conference first.” Not the full House. Not the Congress. Not the country. Just the Republican “conference,” which in Washington-speak means his fellow Republican House members.
Outgoing Speaker John Boehner gave a similar partisan explanation for his resignation on CBS’ “Face the Nation”: “Winning that vote was never an issue. … I would have gotten 400 votes probably. But why do I want to make my members, Republican members, walk the plank?” In other words, he didn’t want his Republican allies to face right-wing primary challenges because they supported him.
Putting party first has proved to be their fatal error. Instead of standing up to the far-right bullies who perennially take the government hostage for the conservative outrage du jour, Boehner and McCarthy have effectively let them dictate how the House is run.
This is like refusing to get chemotherapy because you want your body to be united with your cancerous tumor.
Liberals, like myself, had long urged Boehner to have it out for good with what had been known as the Tea Party. He could have drawn a red line by refusing to allow a shutdown in 2013, or forcing a vote on bipartisan immigration reform.
Such provocative acts may have sparked a coup attempt. But Boehner could have survived one and secured 218 votes with the help of Democrats, who would certainly demand some legislative concessions in return. Republicans dismissed those pleas as mischievous and self-serving, but now our counsel seems prescient.
Boehner chose a different path, allowing the inmates to run wild in the asylum while trying to contain the havoc they wreaked. He let them learn the hard way that a government shutdown would hurt Republican poll numbers. He shelved the immigration reform package he said he wanted, shifting the blame to President Obama. He prevented an automatic yet politically suicidal cut in Medicare doctor reimbursements – opposed by right-wing fiscal scolds – by sneaking it through the House on a hastily called voice vote.
One can understand why Boehner would go to great lengths to avoid a Republican civil war, especially before the 2014 midterms. Control of the Senate was in sight, as well as a broader House majority. Theoretically, that would free the Republican leadership from the nihilists, and allow them to pass problem-solving legislation that could frame the debate for 2016 on their terms.
But theory was not reality. Only days after the 2015 congressional swearing-in, the House Freedom Caucus formed and painted a target on the speaker’s back. Nonstop fractiousness made the most basic legislative tasks a protracted grind, sidelining any hope of rebranding the party with a shiny new legislative agenda. With greater power did not come greater responsibility.
Something had to give. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “no more government shutdowns” ultimatum suggested that the Republican leadership finally had enough. Boehner no longer had the option of letting the hard right learn the hard way all over again. A showdown was unavoidable. Then Boehner slunk from the fight.
It’s not as if Boehner doesn’t agree that his right flank has become detrimental to the party. “We have,” he said in that CBS exit interview, “members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know, they know, are never going to happen.”
And he knows they cannot be allowed to control the House and represent the face of the GOP if the party is to be competitive in presidential election years. Yet he is allowing that to happen. Abdication doesn’t remove the tumor. The cancer attacks whomever comes next.
I have no doubt that a full-blown confrontation would be as brutal as chemotherapy. Boehner was not wrong that his allies would face primary challenges. Several could lose. What would emerge after the civil war is uncertain. But letting the Freedom Caucus cancer metastasize is an untenable prospect for a major political party.
What’s maddening about this Republican rift is how small the ideological gap is between the factions. This is not a Whig Party torn apart over slavery. That schism led to the creation of the Republican Party. One hundred and sixty years later, the Grand Old Party is breaking apart, not over fundamental philosophic disagreement but over tactics.
And not even the tactics of winning, but the tactics of losing – how Republicans should handle proposals that cannot survive a Senate filibuster or presidential veto. By putting party unity above all, nearly everyone in the party lost. John Boehner lost his job. Kevin McCarthy lost his ambitions. The party as a whole lost its chance to prove it can govern competently.
Republicans may try to paper-over the rift yet again, praying that Rep. Paul Ryan has the credibility to keep the Freedom Caucus in line. But you can’t remove a cancer with a faith healer.