July 18th, 2018


The Speaker and His Critics: They wanted a public drama, and got it

Fred Barnes

By Fred Barnes

Published Jan. 14, 2015

The Speaker and His Critics: They wanted a public drama, and got it

"I'm for the most conservative outcome that we can get," Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told Politico's Manu Raju last summer. House speaker John Boehner would agree with that goal. But critics to their right disagree. They are for the most conservative outcome they cannot get.

This is the heart of the division between Republicans in the House and Senate. It was behind the effort to bring down Boehner. And though less than 10 percent of House Republicans voted to oust him as speaker, that small band is likely to be a recurring thorn in his side, just as Senator Ted Cruz has been in McConnell's.

Their grievance, for now anyway, is the 10-month budget negotiated by Boehner and Harry Reid, the outgoing Senate majority leader. It passed in the lame duck session of Congress a month after the Republican landslide in November's midterm elections. That Democrats still controlled the Senate (plus the White House) gave them leverage. The best option for Republicans was a compromise. The dissidents, however, claim Boehner merely surrendered. And they've been very noisy on the subject.

"I cannot stand beside the same leadership that . .. has refused to take swift action against the president and his administration's unconstitutional actions," Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said in a statement. "Not enough is done to stop him," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) said. "Speaker Boehner went too far when he teamed with Obama to advance this legislation," Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) complained. "With this vote, Republicans gave away the best tool available to rein in our liberal activist president: the power of the purse."

Not quite. McConnell intends to use 12 separate spending bills to make numerous changes affecting Obama's policies and programs. For instance, he has vowed to propose amendments to eliminate various parts of Obamacare. 

That won't be enough to assuage dissidents with high-toned reasons for opposing Boehner. Rep. David Brat (R-Va.), who defeated then-majority leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary, declared on Breitbart: "Washington is broken in part because our party's leadership has strayed from its own principles of free-market, limited government, constitutional conserv-atism." That wasn't all. He cosponsored an amendment to defund Obama's executive amnesty, only to have Boehner block it. The amendment's chance of passage: zero. 

On other issues too, the dissidents ignored the fact that what they sought was unattainable, since Republicans lacked the votes. They had no choice but to settle for a bipartisan agreement or force a government shutdown. 

Cruz and his allies favored a shutdown in 2013 in hopes it would stir national support for defunding Obamacare. It didn't come close. On the contrary, it caused the favorability of the Republican party to drop from 38 to 28 percent, while Democratic popularity held steady. It took a year for Republicans to recover.

So what was the point of voting against Boehner, as 24 House Republicans did? They didn't have a popular candidate to replace Boehner, and the campaigns run by backbenchers Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) and Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) were amateurish. Gohmert got 3 votes, Yoho 2. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) received 12 votes, but he's hardly a full-blown conservative.

Several Republicans said they had little choice. "A large number of my constituents have called on me to demand new leadership in the House," Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) said. "I hear you and I agree." Before the vote, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) met with Boehner and explained he had promised as a candidate to vote against him. "To a certain extent, I regret having said that," he told the Birmingham News. "But I said it, and I can't walk it back. You give your word, you've got to keep your word."

In the House, the anti-Boehner bloc wanted visibility. They could have organized against Boehner when House Republicans met privately and chose him as their candidate for speaker. They didn't. They waited until last week's vote on the House floor and succeeded in attracting enormous media attention.

No more than a dozen of the dissidents, once dubbed "chuckleheads" by former representative Steve LaTour-ette (R-Ohio), are firmly opposed. But their political strength goes far beyond their numbers. 

They aren't well known nationally, but they are household names to the Republican base. This is especially true of Gohmert, thanks to his many appearances on Fox News. And they are in sync with conservative talk radio (Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin) in their low opinion of Boehner. Levin asked listeners to target Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) for his vote for Boehner. The 4,000 comments received by Labrador included "worthless shill" and "you're just another jackass" and "Judas."

Gohmert and company are also aligned with well-organized groups influential with grassroots conserv-atives. The Madison Group made Boehner the test for endorsing candidates. If they said they'd vote against Boehner, they got the endorsement.

Matt Kibbe, president of the small-government group FreedomWorks, said Boehner "has caved on numerous massive spending bills at the eleventh hour, and abused the legislative process to stomp out opposition by holding surprise votes and giving members little time to actually read the bills before they vote." FreedomWorks members, he said, sent more than 20,000 messages to Congress and made 13,000 calls to oppose Boehner.

Boehner is already unpopular with the base. One poll found that
60 percent of Republicans want him to be replaced. Constant turmoil "really does erode a majority," Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) says. It's up to Boehner to make sure this doesn't happen.

An achievable agenda conservative enough to shame the dissidents into supporting it might do the trick.

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Fred Barnes is Executive Editor at the Weekly Standard.