When Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz started pushing their plan back in July for using the upcoming government-funding bill to defund Obamacare, Lee convened a meeting in his office with ten senators and about 20 representatives of conservative outside groups like Heritage Action.
One person he didn’t call: Speaker John Boehner. According to a senior House GOP leadership aide, there was “zero” communication between Boehner’s office and Lee, Cruz, and the other top proponents of the defund strategy.
Boehner, majority leader Eric Cantor, and other top House leaders were reading the newspapers, obviously, so it’s not like they were unaware of the push, which was growing in momentum throughout the summer.
But as they tried to gingerly tamp down enthusiasm at the end of July before lawmakers left for the August recess, they refused to take a public position on the matter, repeatedly telling members and the press that “no decisions have been made.” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, currently facing a primary challenger, also did not take a position, and still hasn’t.
Aides to both Boehner and McConnell actually intervened to ensure that comments both of their bosses made did not actually amount to taking a position.
In the resulting vacuum, the push to defund Obamacare continued to gain momentum. And when Cantor finally revealed the House leadership’s plan last week, it was too late — the seeds of dissent had already been planted.
Depending on one’s perspective on the battle over the continuing resolution to fund the government, that may be a happy tale or a travesty. But at a more fundamental level, it’s hard to believe it represents a viable long-term leadership strategy for the GOP.
How are Republicans expected to win major concessions in a showdown with the sitting president of the United States if they aren’t even communicating among themselves? And is Boehner so crippled by his fear of the conservatives in his own conference that he can no longer say what he believes is the best strategy to achieve their shared goals?
The CR is hardly the only example of chaotic deliberation, but the concern for Republicans should be the trend lines. The distrust between leadership and the right flank has been steadily growing over time.
A range of Republican insiders on and off the Hill indicate that most people are in an agitated state about the missteps they see, which tend to vary according to which camp a person is in. One defense offered by Republican aides is that the House GOP’s process, while messy, eventually works. One Republican compares the situation to a dysfunctional family in which members yell at each another but ultimately settle on a plan.
But too often for the GOP, the final reconciliation comes after a political defeat. As The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber has recounted, the formula for this is often Senate Republicans’ partnering with President Obama to undermine the House position, resulting in a political box that forces even most of the hardliners to assent to going with the flow.
Another point offered in defense of Boehner’s rule is that the problems are larger than him.
“Right now leadership, period, in Washington, period, is weak. The president is weak, he can’t marshal his own party into things,” says Representative John Campbell of California. “Is Harry Reid considered a super-strong, can-get-anything-done-in-the-Senate kind of leader? Is Nancy Pelosi that powerful that she can muscle things through in her conference?”
Pelosi is perhaps the best and the worst example. A legendary whip, she is known for the ruthless, vise-like grip she holds on the House Democratic caucus. But even she is having trouble with the freshmen Democrats, who have repeatedly abandoned her this Congress, especially on Obamacare.
“The problem is you really can’t have 536 independent players and get anything done,” Campbell adds. Conservatives privately argue that at least a dysfunctional Congress doesn’t pass as many bad laws. Perhaps that’s the best conservatives can hope for achieving. But with entitlement spending on autopilot and set to overwhelm the budget in coming decades, that would be a rather pessimistic view.
Coming out of the GOP’s retreat last January in Williamsburg, Va., the House Republican conference appeared to have entered a period of detente with leadership. An agreement was struck through a process — Boehner consulting a group of five influential conservatives — that made a lot more sense than does the chaos of the current CR debate.
If the distrust now is too deep to formulate strategy through a coherent process, it raises the question of what needs to change.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.