Politics & Policy

Why the House GOP Ousted Boehner

(Win McNamee/Getty)
The power structure didn’t even try to articulate a conservative vision.

Many Republicans see disorder this week in Washington and assume the worst. The Republican Congress is in disarray, to be sure, but it is a necessary evil if we are ever going to unify the Republican party around a positive reform agenda. The disruption of the past week signals the potential for a fundamental rethinking of the visionless Republican establishment’s approach to dealing with its conservative base.

This morning, the Wall Street Journal alleges that a conservative sub-movement is intent on placing blame for all of the nation’s ills on the Republican establishment, rather than Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi. It is a common refrain among establishment Republicans and their scribes. But it is not what we allege.

Conservatives in the House and across our nation don’t want chaos. We don’t want a vacant speaker’s chair. And, contrary to the prevailing Washington narrative, we don’t even want leadership that promises to accept all of our tactical play-calls. What we do want is an end to the vision vacuum that has prevailed for years.

Yuval Levin, writing on National Review last year, anticipated the vision vacuum that caused Speaker Boehner to resign.

The effort to define and advance the conservative agenda, meanwhile, will require Republicans to see the value of championing policy proposals even when they cannot get enacted (given a Democratic president and enough Senate Democrats to sustain a filibuster). That is how you put your agenda before the public, how you get used to articulating it, and how you force your opponents to defend unpopular positions. The last few weeks suggest Republicans aren’t quite ready to do this, and that their strategic thinking is too backward-looking. They believe they have avoided last year’s error; I fear they have previewed next year’s error.

As predicted, what vision has House leadership offered this year after the monumental election victories of 2014? Its most significant achievement so far has been a $500 billion increase in Medicare spending at the behest of the medical lobby. Its fondest wish has been a deal with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama to lift the budget caps and make the powerful appropriations chairmen’s lives easier. This obsession with small-ball priorities of the well-connected has completely crowded out any effort to lay out a real agenda to respond to the problems facing Main Street Americans.

#share#Even when Republicans are handed can’t-lose opportunities to present their vision to the country, they decline to act on them for fear of drawing too much attention to their positions. Imagine how much conservatives could have shifted the ground on abortion had they spent months touring the country decrying Planned Parenthood’s harvesting of babies for profit in advance of the fall government-funding debate. Imagine how well-positioned conservatives could have been for a showdown with Barack Obama on the issue. But Republicans, as usual, took the easy way out, opting instead to focus on a set of widely panned hearings focusing on the nuances of the organization’s balance sheet.

EDITORIAL: Paul Ryan Should Run

For John Boehner and his leadership team, politics isn’t about changing minds and motivating supporters. It’s about extracting enough money and institutional support from Washington to guarantee a hold on power. His model of leadership — offering fund-raising resources to compliant members and shutting out the ones who cause him problems — was built on the assumption that his conference basically shared this view of politics. But while the House GOP does contains some self-interested holdovers from the bygone earmark era, its most conservative members recognize that they don’t need K Street to raise money in an Internet age.

#related#Unable to use familiar carrots to encourage cooperation, the Boehner leadership team turned to the whip to entice members, removing those who didn’t fall in line from plum committee assignments and even recruiting moderate primary challengers to remove conservatives from their seats. But the whip’s crack also stings less in the Internet age. When Boehner tried to make an example of conservative representative Mark Meadows earlier this year by removing his Oversight Subcommittee gavel, he instead made him a hero to the grassroots, which showered him with support and flooded leadership phone lines with calls for his reinstatement. That decision, of course, led directly to Boehner’s ouster by prompting the Meadows motion to vacate the chair.

The so-called “hard-liners” can’t be bought off. They can’t be scared off. And their votes are essential to passing legislation in a Republican-controlled House. John Boehner’s response to this reality was denial. His leadership style was to choose conflict with his base rather than with the Republican donor class. It was a choice allowed by yesterday’s politics, but unsustainable in an era when your voters can see the disconnect between what you say and what you do.

That won’t work for the next speaker. Conservatives in the conference have an energy and enthusiasm that the proper leadership could tap into and channel to promote a governing vision for the country. The next speaker can and should work with them, not around them.

— Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.

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