Politics & Policy

This Is Why We Have Elections

House speaker John Boehner (Mark Wilson/Getty)
Gohmert vs. Boehner was a fight worth having.

Third verse, same as the first: When the Left loses, its habitual response is to delegitimize the winners. We see this all the time: So-called progressives fail at the talk-radio game, so talk radio becomes categorically disreputable in the Left-dominated popular culture. Fox News beats the other cable-news outlets like a team of rented mules, so Fox News must be wicked, dishonest, dishonorable – and if intellectually dishonest critics such as Jameson Parker have to lie to make that case stick, so be it. Republicans won big in the last election, and will be coming into Congress — and the state legislatures, and the governors’ offices — in a very strong position, which means the Left wants to spend the next six months talking about whether Steve Scalise is a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer — he obviously is not – and applying Freudian analysis to Louie Gohmert’s asparagus.

Conservatives bore each other to tears reciting the litany of double standards in American politics, but let’s recall: The worst that Scalise is accused of is failing to sufficiently vet a group that invited him to speak. And yet we can expect endless headlines like this one over a predictably beef-witted Clarence Page column: “GOP can’t shake David Duke. Does it want to?” David Duke, the nobody ex-Klansman who is relevant to the national conversation only as a media-sustained grotesque, in fact spent a large part of his political career as an active Democrat, from the 1972 New Orleans riot to his unsuccessful run in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary. Think about that: David Duke’s aim in 1988 was to defeat George Bush, but he’s a Republican problem? While Duke was seeking the Democratic nomination, the Senate majority leader — a Democrat — was none other than Robert K. Byrd, who rejoiced in the title “Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan.” Duke was such a reviled figure among Republicans that a sitting president, George H. W. Bush, and a former president, Ronald Reagan, both took the unusual step of making endorsements on behalf of his opponent in a state-legislature race. But never mind. It’s a useful story for the Clarence Pages of the world who, like antibiotic-resistant syphilis, shall always be with us.

Louie Gohmert, who was the headline of the day when unsuccessfully challenging John Boehner for the House speakership, sometimes says odd and embarrassing things, and those are used to tar Republicans as a group. Democrats such as Hank Johnson of Georgia can wonder aloud whether sending additional military personnel to Guam puts the island at risk of capsizing; his predecessor in office, Democrat Cynthia McKinney, a 9/11 truther and friend of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers, once opined that “Zionists” had cost her two elections — and if you’re wondering what she meant by “Zionists,” her father, also a Democratic legislator, helpfully explained at the time: “Jews have bought everybody. Jews. J-E-W-S.”

Spelling it out is a nice touch.

By way of comparison, Gohmert’s oddball expressions — “casting aspersions on my asparagus,” etc. — and his occasionally daft enthusiasms are pretty tame stuff.

I am of the view — intensely unpopular among many conservatives — that John Boehner has been a pretty good speaker, that his is a nearly impossible job, and that 99 percent of those who castigate him as a weakling and a sellout — officeholders and free-range critics alike — could not hope to perform half as well as he has. But Gohmert’s challenge was nonetheless welcome.

This is why we have elections — to choose representatives. The 2014 congressional elections were quite good for conservatives, who are restive and impatient for reform. Many of them fault congressional leaders, especially John Boehner and Senate leader Mitch McConnell, for being too eager to compromise and too generous in their terms. There might have been a mutiny against McConnell if all the likely candidates for Senate majority leader — Senators Rubio, Paul, Cruz, etc. — weren’t running for president.

Will Rogers famously joked: “I don’t belong to any organized political party — I’m a Democrat,” and there has long been a great deal of self-congratulatory myth-making among Democrats about the freewheeling nature of their party and the array of independent minds that compose it. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth: Congressional Republicans are in fact more likely to buck their leadership, and to vote against the majority of their party, than are Democrats. The Republican party is mainly organized by ideology; the Democratic party is mainly organized by the bundling of special interests — the Teamsters and the people who demand federal subsidies for sex-change operations are not obvious policy allies, but the Democrats offer sops to both, so they work together.

The Republicans, and conservatives at large, are a fractious bunch because values play a more outsize role in Republican politics than in Democratic politics. Republican voters are jurors weighing the evidence and deciding whether Boehner et al. should be charged with the felony of being too soft. Democrats are horse-traders, and they’ll stomach Barack Obama’s stand against gay marriage if they think that they can get something (e.g., federalized health care) out of it — or if they think he’s insincere, which is generally a safe bet.

Louie Gohmert probably should not be the speaker of the House. But his unsuccessful run was nonetheless a good thing for the party — a much better thing than the brute-force display of the Republican leaders who leaned on representatives who might otherwise have cast a protest vote — or more than that — for Gohmert. Papering over philosophical and political differences through a show of official might by the Republican leadership will not make the disputes within the party go away — it will only cause them to fester.

Tuesday was an excellent day to have that fight. Wednesday, it is time for a different one.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent of National Review.

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