House conservatives have spent the past few years making life hell for Republican leadership. On the face of it, this approach doesn’t make that much sense tactically. But there is one argument that comes close to intersecting with reality as a rational explanation for House conservatives’ intransigent behavior against their leaders. It goes as follows: During election time, Republicans make bounteous promises to their voters in order to secure congressional majorities, and then they can’t convert these promises into legislative gains. One can understand how concentrations of conservative voters and their representatives find this frustrating.
On the charge of overpromising, Republican congressional leaders are guilty. In his 2014 re-election campaign, for example, Mitch McConnell pledged to play brinksman through the appropriations process. “[Obama] needs to be challenged, and the best way to do that is through the funding process,’” McConnell said in August 2014. “He would have to make a decision on a given bill, whether there’s more in it that he likes than dislikes.”
Though McConnell is trying to shepherd some victories through a spending-package negotiation later this month, he did abandon his cavalier attitude toward brinksmanship by pledging, almost immediately after securing his position as Senate majority leader, that there would be no shutdowns under his watch. Makes sense! The public tends to blame the Republicans for shutdowns and shutdown threats, and not just out of habit. It’s typically because Republicans make shutdown stands over deeply ideological demands that the rest of the country does not believe are worth a shutdown. Though the party prospered in the 2014 midterms following a 2013 shutdown, it might not fare as well in a presidential cycle during which Senate Republicans are on defense.
The only defense that House conservatives are playing though, no matter the cycle, is against their right flank in potential primary challenges. They follow an alternate set of incentives that are in direct contrast to the rest of the party’s. It’s this tension—between those who are politically compelled to uphold all of the wildest promises made during election season, and those who are compelled to moderate—that’s the source of all of the party’s congressional problems.
Fortunately there’s a solution to all of these that works for both sides: stop overpromising. Instead of promising to do a lot of things that aren’t anywhere near achievable, you just … don’t do that?
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza captures the tension well in a meaty profile of the House Freedom Caucus, the several-dozen conservative members who generally vote as a bloc either for or against—typically against!—pieces of important legislation. Amidst all the whining about how ex-Speaker John Boehner reprimanded them once or twice for constantly going out of their way to humiliate the party, HFC members try to defend their brand of tactical hardball, a generous term we’ll use to describe the process of selecting one losing battle after another.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, for example, runs through for Lizza the list of promises Republicans made in the 2010 “Tea Party wave” cycle and finds few of them met.
The Republicans’ first budget cut only thirty-eight billion dollars. “That was the first violation of the pledge and those ideals we ran on,” Duncan said. “We also said that we would repeal Obamacare and we’d use every tool at our disposal, not just feel-good votes. And we didn’t. We said we would cut spending in a way that protected veterans, seniors, and the military. And the spending cuts that we got, known as the sequester, didn’t do that. They adversely affected the military, they adversely affected seniors and veterans.” They promised to stop borrowing money and failed, he said.
To their base, Republicans didn’t cut as much of the budget as they set out to, and where they did cut, they cut the wrong programs. They promised to wipe Obamacare off the books and did not. They promised not to raise the debt ceiling, then the debt ceiling was raised. The lesson Duncan draws from this sequence is that they let voters down. Indeed, they did, but not in the way that he thinks. They let voters down by promising stuff that was wildly unrealistic if not mathematically impossible to achieve given the distribution of power between the two parties! The proper solution, then, would’ve been to head into the next election with a cooler head—or at least make it clear to voters that they were listing their goals, or their opening offers in negotiations, rather than their promises. Duncan has not learned this lesson.
Rep. Raul Labrador, who in this very piece literally mocks Democrats’ obsession with “governing,” voices an oft-repeated conservative gripe about how if, like Boehner and McConnell, you announce that there will never be a shutdown ahead of time, “you will always lose.” One way to change this would be to stop governing by brinksmanship or picking battles that you will never win without either veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress, or a Republican president. The work for this begins on the campaign trail, ahead of time, when you’re promising what you will or won’t do. It would also be helpful for Labrador to stop saying things, as he does in this piece, about how President Obama “wants to fundamentally change America,” a piece of nonsense that serves no other purpose than getting people all worked up so as to later harden their fall. (Obama wants things like additional funds to fix crumbling bridges. Stop it. It’s almost Year Eight here. Stop.)
Rep. David Brat, who defeated Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary, argues that Republicans haven’t “fought” after promising to do so. “Republicans said, ‘Well, if you give us the Senate, then we’re going to fight like crazy against executive overreach and all of this.’ We haven’t fought,” he told Lizza. “Boehner said we were going to fight ‘tooth and nail’ against amnesty. Didn’t lift a finger.” Boehner fought pretty hard against “amnesty” but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth shuttering the Department of Homeland Security over, a shutdown fight that would have further damaged the Republican brand. (Texas’ court battle against Obama’s executive action on immigration, meanwhile, is doing well.) What Boehner’s successor, Paul Ryan, and Brat should each take away from this is that they shouldn’t make pledges to do things that both know won’t fly.
The suggestions I’m making are deeply unfun. Everyone likes to run a hard-ass campaign about how they’re going to go to Washington and stop all the bad things by “fighting.” No politician wants to say, “I’m going to go to Washington and fight for the end of all things I dislike, but the other side likely won’t sign off, so I’ll work to secure incremental gains by trading the other side its own incremental gains in a negotiation!” It’s time the Republican Party restored a touch of honesty to the way it campaigns. Because what, really, could be any less fun than the status quo?