Ever since he was first elected to the House a decade ago, Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican from the San Joaquin Valley, has been a popular figure in conservative circles. He frequently huddles with movement leaders, he’s a reliable vote on the Ways and Means committee, and in 2010 he published Restoring the Republic, a conservative manifesto, where he argues for a flat tax and deep reforms to entitlement programs. In the book, he also harshly criticizes environmental lobbyists, calling them “neo-Marxist” and “Maoist.”
But in recent weeks, Nunes has become one of the most vocal critics of his conservative colleagues — the same colleagues he usually relaxes with in the Republican cloakroom and sits with at conference meetings. He’s furious with their willingness to shut down the government without much of a strategy, and with their inclination to follow the lead of Senator Ted Cruz, rather than Speaker John Boehner. In news story after news story, he has tartly called them “lemmings with suicide vests,” among other things. His comments have drawn notice; some of his supporters back home are wondering if he’s a “sellout.”
Nunes, though, says such talk is inane. In an interview, he tells me his loyalty to Boehner and his new role as conservative provocateur are products of the growing unrest in the Republican conference, and he feels he needs to speak out for the dozens of Republicans who prefer to stay mum, even though they, like Nunes, are unhappy with how the fiscal impasse is unfolding.
NATIONAL REVIEW: Why have you suddenly become such a candid figure? You have become very frank about what you see as a lack of strategy.
DEVIN NUNES: It’s important to be honest and truthful with your constituents. At the end of the day, we represent them. And from Day One several months ago, when constituents were asking me if there was a way that we could implement a strategy that get rid of Obamacare using an appropriations bill, I said ‘No, that’s not a winning strategy.’
And the simple reason is you just have to be able to count the votes. And this whole notion, that you only somehow need 51 votes in the Senate? That’s not even true. And it’s not even true that you need 60 votes in the Senate, because really, no one honestly believes that a guy named Obama is not going to veto a bill that gets rid of Obamacare. So, then you technically need 67 votes in the Senate and you would need 290 votes in the House, where we only have 233 votes. So this is just a simple issue of math, basic math. And I’m willing to go along with the leadership because I think the way these other guys who have been opposing leadership every step of the way is just unacceptable.
NR: When did your frustrations with Cruz’s effort crystallize?
NUNES: I don’t have anything personal against the guy, but when all of this started, when they started airing ads on television telling my constituents and people everywhere that this was plausible, I couldn’t stand there and go along with something I knew wasn’t plausible. It never was; never has been.
NR: Is there frustration in the House GOP about Cruz interfering with the lower chamber’s affairs? We’ve heard a lot of rumors.
NUNES: Again, I don’t really have anything against Cruz. I think he’s a really good politician; he’s an excellent politician. He’s one of the best politicians I’ve seen come around in a long, long time. But my issue is, we have a small group in the House who, for three years straight, have said that no matter what the leadership comes up with, they’ll oppose it. That’s been happening for three straight years now, and Cruz is playing into that. Now, I’ve opposed the leadership several times, whether it was TARP or the fiscal cliff at the beginning of this year. I was very outspoken against those issues. But the leadership can’t be wrong every time. And if they were wrong every time, then somebody would step back and pick up that leadership vacuum.
We’ve essentially been at 200 to 205 votes for the whole year since you have this secret cadre of members that has been continually meeting, not to plot about how to get rid of Obamacare, not to plot about how to save this country from the leftists, but they’ve been plotting on how they themselves can get power. But they simply don’t have the votes.
NR: So this problem for Boehner goes back, perhaps, to the coup attempt?
NUNES: Even before.
NR: It seems like you’re frustrated with this constantly brewing civil war within the ranks. You’re sick of it.
NUNES: Yeah, I’m sick of it. And I’m sick of us not being able to get 218 votes, because every time we don’t get 218 votes — every time on anything major — we lose what little leverage we have with only one half of one-third of government. So that again is just math, that’s just counting votes. You can’t go to the table to play a serious game of poker when you’re showing all your cards to the other side. In fact, you’re not even playing with cards; that’s how bad it is.
NR: You’re a well-known conservative in the House, but the rare outspoken critic. Is there’s a lot of fear on the right to speak out? That is, if you speak out, do you immediately create primary problems? Why are you a lonely voice?
NUNES: Well, it’s because I make this trip back and forth. I’ve got three little kids at home and I’m trying to save this country from itself. I’m not here to play political power games and I’ve had enough of people playing political power games and this has just gone on too long. Look, I wanted to have this fight, this conversation about the party’s problems in the House, in January. I really thought that we needed to peel off this scab and have this fight in January when we were about ready to go off the fiscal cliff. And we ended up with higher tax rates and more spending because we couldn’t hold 218 votes.
And now, instead of talking about Obamacare, we’re playing power games with each other. Think about how dumb that is: You shut down the government the same day that Obamacare is being implemented. And everybody knows this is going to be a car crash. Nobody knows if it’s going to be a 100-car pileup or a 50-car pileup, but the Democrats own all the cars in the pileup. And we decided, with our small little part of government, to take our little bicycle into the path of the cars. And look what’s happening to us. That’s essentially what I am trying to stop.
What we need to do is strategically strike at areas where we can build the most leverage we can with whatever cards we can take to the poker table and try to fight for this country, for the conservative movement. We need to talk about the broader debate, looking at Medicare and how to solve the debt crisis, instead of becoming obsessed with tactics for a legislative goal that, at the moment, can never happen due to math. And these guys who are blocking that kind of thoughtful policy process that gets beyond tactics, I don’t think they’re conservatives; they’re anything but that.
NR: Okay, so what are they? Who are these 30 to 50 members who seem to be dictating the House GOP’s playbook?
NUNES: Well, I’ve already referred to them as the lemming caucus.
NR: What do you mean by that?
NUNES: They don’t want to follow the leadership, so they just kind of follow each other and go off the cliff. And that’s not even good enough for them, so when Cruz pops up, they follow him. Rand Paul pops up, they follow him. I don’t want to name names here, but the day that Senator Coburn, who I’ve worked with on a lot of policy issues, when you’re calling Senator Coburn a RINO, somebody’s on another planet. That’s not believable because it’s not true.
NR: As this shutdown continues, what’s your message to the leadership? Can they ignore the lemmings or not?
NUNES: Uh, no. I think we have to continue; I think until these guys that put this strategy into effect see it play out, we won’t learn our lesson. We have to let it all play out until they decide that they want to be part of a functioning majority that gives us the most leverage that we can get to fight for less government and to fix or change Obamacare, to get rid of it. But you can’t do any of it with the way we’re doing it now.