I had to laugh last week when right wing pundits were questioning whether Paul Ryan (R-WI) was conservative enough to be Speaker. And then I got a good laugh again on Sunday when Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) was questioned on Meet the Press whether Paul Ryan was a “true conservative”.
Well – I’m here to tell you folks that yes, he is conservative. And so is John Boehner and so is Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and what they have in common is that the ultra-right wing of the Republican Party is questioning their conservative values. McCarthy was all set to become Speaker until Cruz effectively blocked him even though he is in the Senate and has proclaimed loudly that he is “staying out of the House leadership battle.” And yet Cruz is viewed as one of the unofficial leaders of the House Freedom Caucus – a group of extremely conservative Republicans who deposed Boehner and effectively destroyed McCarthy’s candidacy. Cruz meets monthly with the group who have been described as the 40 of the “most committed ideologues in the House, the Freedom Caucus has a simple mission: to get GOP leadership to deliver on extreme, anti-government and social-conservative rhetoric that nearly all Republicans spout to get elected.” (Rolling Stone October 6, 2015)
And as I much as I like to chuckle at the Republicans in disarray – I have to wonder about the state of our government when someone like Paul Ryan is questioned as to whether he is a conservative. Give me a break. I have been in so many meetings with this man and he is many things: smart, charismatic, great with numbers & facts, and CONSERVATIVE. I have often walked out of those meetings thinking he made sense and then I would catch myself and remember that no – he and I are on opposite sides of the issue – whatever the issue was – we were inevitably on opposite sides.
So how conservative does one have to be to be approved of by the Freedom Caucus? Well here’s the thing – obviously there are political extremes on either end of the spectrum and good policy virtually never gets enacted at either end. Why? While the political ends of the spectrum are by definition the extreme end points of either view, in order to actually govern and pass policy that that represents the views of both parties – they have to meet somewhere in the middle. The Freedom Caucus? They don’t care about passing policy – in fact; many would rather not have any government programs at all. But specifically, they have a laundry list of demands they are insisting on to throw their support behind the next would be Speaker of the House. Hence the conservative litmus test. According to The Hill this morning, the Freedom Caucus wants to return to “regular order” which would allow more bills to move in committees and then get to the floor for votes. They also want more say in who gets committee positions and chairmanships – decisions usually left to leadership- and most importantly, they want a Speaker who “won’t retaliate against fellow Republicans.” (The Hill, October 20, 2015)
What this means is that the Freedom Caucus doesn’t actually want a Speaker who will work to enact policy in the middle with Democrats. In fact, they want to ”purge any career politician who capitulates to the Democrats if the party wants to address issues like the federal debt, the treatment of veterans and abortion.” (New York Times Republican Freedom Caucus’s Revolt in House Is Stoked Back Home October 19, 2015) And while I agree that maybe there are too many government programs and that there is inevitably redundancy which should be addressed to make the best use of government spending, there are also programs that take care of our citizens that even ultra conservatives might like if they have a relative who is a senior citizen, or has an incurable disease like cancer or Parkinson’s, or is a Veteran or, is a victim of abuse, or homeless, or is a latch-key kid with no one at home.
The people in the Freedom Caucus’s districts are largely exurban, rural and concentrated in the South and Rocky Mountain West. The snapshot of one district, represented by Mr. Jody Hice, (R-GA) sums up how this demographic views the political process. One of his constituents said on the topic of shutting down the government, “ ‘ I just think we need to be firmer, put our foot down and not do so much deal-making. Sometimes, you have to take to that point, especially if it was over the funding of Planned Parenthood.’ ” (New York Times Republican Freedom Caucus Revolt in House Is Stoked Back Home October 19, 2015)
This context makes it sound like “deal-making” is a bad thing. It was Tip O’Neil, the long-time Speaker of the House, who was widely respected from both sides of the aisle, who coined the phrase – “all politics is is local” so let me give you an example of that.
When I was 30 years old and working in the Wisconsin State Senate, there wasn’t a statewide recycling law in the country. My boss was working to change that and he brought together industry executives, environmentalists, county and town government officials, and basically anyone else who had a stake in the game. And after some 300 odd amendments to the original bill, that I had to wade through and analyze, with neither Republicans nor Democrats getting exactly what they wanted, Wisconsin became the first state in the country with a statewide recycling law. Now – can anyone honestly say today that recycling is a bad idea? That was deal making at it’s finest. And there are countless federal level examples I could give of Democrats and Republicans working together to enact meaningful federal policy that is helpful to thousands of Americans – but I think you get my drift…
In the end, the Republicans are going to elect whomever they think will best serve their interests and that is their prerogative. And clearly, the candidate has to be conservative enough – i.e. agree to the Freedom Caucus agenda to limit the Speaker’s powers in order to gain support from the Caucus. Can’t wait to see who is next up at bat. My prediction: while it may be Paul Ryan since he is supposedly huddled with the Freedom Caucus now, I think he’s too smart to play their game – but then I’ve been known to be wrong before and if he does become the Speaker, the Democrats will have their work cut out for them.
Diane Rogers, Capstone Partner, draws on 25 years of experience working in state and federal government, offering clients expertise in public policy, politics, management, and strategic planning. Contact Diane here to find out more.