John Boehner had reached his limit. In a meeting with his House colleagues to discuss Wednesday’s budget agreement, the House speaker finally let loose on the conservative groups that have been roiling Republican politics. Organizations like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action had opposed the plan without even knowing its details, said Boehner, because their true goal was to raise money and expand their organizations, not fight for any particular principle or policy. “No one controls your voting card but you,” Boehner said. This wasn’t just a message for closed-doors. The speaker took on the groups in public: “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner said in a press conference Wednesday. “This is ridiculous.”
The budget agreement reached by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray could very well bring some order to a policy process that has skidded from crisis to crisis for the last four years. But politically the deal has the potential to be very disruptive. Boehner was not simply voicing an alternative policy position about the merits of the plan’s spending reductions. He was making a claim about the low motives and trickery of the organizations that claim to represent the interests of grassroots conservatives.
When Ryan unveiled the budget agreement, he prefaced several of his statements by saying “as a conservative.” What’s being debated is not just the merits of the agreement, but who gets to determine who is and isn’t a conservative. Ryan, the author of budgets that have been characterized by Democrats as radically conservative, is a trusted voice. He at least has the right enemies. What Ryan and Boehner are arguing for is pragmatic conservatism. Ryan made his case in the pages of the National Review:
We’ve cut spending in a smarter way. And we’ve made it clear: Tax hikes aren’t an option. We’ve said budget talks should be about how Washington can live within its means, not how families should pay more. For conservatives, this agreement shows we can make Washington work—and on our own terms. It’s not perfect. But it’s a start.
Republicans leaders want to avoid another politically costly moment of brinkmanship that might sink GOP poll numbers further. Instead, they want the country to focus on the president’s health care plan, which they hope will continue to hurt Democrats.
What GOP leaders are fighting against is the outsize expectations of the faithful who want policy victories that are impossible in a system of divided government. At times like this, pragmatic party leaders often tell their stalwarts not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but Boehner is saying more than that. He is calling out the arbiters of purity in his party, saying that while they use the language of policy and principle, they are merely doing so to advance their own narrow aims. They can never be satisfied because satisfaction doesn’t bring in donations.
Boehner is essentially calling them grassroots con men. He isn’t alone either. A lot of Republican senators had the same complaint during the shutdown battle, accusing Sen. Ted Cruz of joining in the deception. “They’ve got the grassroots all confused,” complained one Republican senator at the time. By speaking out now, Boehner is rendering a verdict about the shutdown. It was such a political disaster, and the stupidity of the blind-ally politics promoted by these conservative groups is so self-evident, that he takes only a minimal political risk by speaking this plainly in public.
During the government shutdown, the House speaker was regularly labeled as weak for allowing these same conservatives to hijack the process. Boehner’s conception of the job is not as a dictator, but a leader who tries to shape the will of his conference. In the fall, he was “overrun,” as Boehner put it, by his party’s fervor for a budget confrontation. Part of that fervor was whipped up by these outside groups. Boehner spearheaded their fight, even after he made the case for a different tactical approach. (One that he thought might actually work.) One possible benefit of a strategy GOP leaders knew was doomed was that failure would teach GOP maximalists a lesson. After touching the hot stove and experiencing the predictable consequences of defiance divorced from strategy, they would learn the lesson. If they didn’t learn it then, House Speaker Boehner wants to make sure they get the message now.