The Tea Party’s Weakness, Exposed

The race to replace Eric Cantor shows how little muscle the tea party really has.

Grassroots conservatives’ elation over last week’s surprise demise of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has turned to dismay, as their chances of replacing Cantor with one of their own have faded. The tea party is weaker in Congress than has previously been supposed.

The 233 House Republicans will meet to choose Cantor’s replacement on Thursday. For the 40 or 50 most stolid House conservatives, the Virginia Republican (and ambitious climber) symbolized much of what is wrong today with the Beltway establishment: too close to K Street and Wall Street; unwilling or unable to put Democrats on the defensive on debt, taxes, jobs or health care; too willing to let the left set the agenda on issues like immigration.

But Cantor’s likely successor — House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — is even more establishment, being more favorable, for example, to some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Conservatives have been caught flat-footed. Upon Cantor’s stunning primary defeat by David Brat, an unknown economics professor, a handful of senior House conservatives suddenly found themselves enjoying a (literally) once-in-a-century opportunity to run for majority leader between elections. All of them took a pass.

The list of “almost rans” to replace Cantor is pretty remarkable. It includes Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the powerful rules committee; Jeb Hensarling, also of Texas, chairman of the financial services committee; Dr. Tom Price of Georgia, the likely next chairman of the budget Committee; and Jim Jordan, former head of the Republican Study Committee, the House conservative caucus.

In one sense, all this reticence is understandable. The position of House majority leader is arguably the worst job in Washington, save perhaps for White House press spokesman. The House leader is constantly in the position of having to displease his restive (and, to put not too fine a point on it, often lazy and unimaginative) colleagues; and yet he cannot act independently of the speaker and the whip, who are elected independently and may not have his best interests at heart. There is often distrust and competitive behavior between the top leaders. I can attest to these problems from my own experience, having worked as a senior policy adviser in the majority leader’s office under Dick Armey for nearly eight years. A majority leader is his caucus’s favorite punching bag.

And yet if conservatives want to set the agenda, they have to be willing to sit at the big table. The only person with the courage to try is the relative newbie, Raúl Labrador of Idaho. A Mormon born in Puerto Rico and first elected in 2010, Labrador appears to be more “tea party” in outlook than the others I’ve named (at least as measured by his quite respectable numbers on the  Heritage Action  and  FreedomWorks congressional scorecards), but his record is not so spectacular as to inspire a passionate following like that of Sen. Ted Cruz or former Rep. Ron Paul, both from Texas. And like Cantor (and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida), Labrador has dallied with the devil on amnesty. His candidacy seems a last-minute long shot and will probably fail.

Conservatives’ only realistic hope for putting one of their own in leadership would appear to be in the whip’s race. That post is also open, thanks to McCarthy’s decision to run for leader.

The whip post, too, however, may end up being filled by an establishmentarian: the current chief deputy whip, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., who, like McCarthy, hopes to move up one rung. Roskam is the frontrunner, although he does have two challengers for the job, both of them more conservative than he: Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind. Scalise is the current chair of the Republican Study Committee. With McCarthy likely to win the leader’s race, some members may vote for one of the two conservatives for whip in order to “balance” the outcome. Each faction (or rather, each persuasion) would have a win they could point to.

The instinctive Republican preference for candidates who are “next in line,” rather than those who are clearly best-suited to the post, seems likely, during this current “snap” election, to cancel out other, less measurable factors, such as personal popularity, private back-scratching or regional loyalties.

So I will go out on a limb and predict that the moderate McCarthy and the conservative Scalise will be the respective winners of Thursday’s caucus balloting. It’s possible Roskam will pull it out. Conservatives may split their votes, allowing him to run up the middle. It’s frankly hard to predict these kinds of contests from the outside.

But whatever happens, the tea party will have reason for genuine introspection. The very fact that House conservatives are struggling to take even one leadership post, when the past three years have given them numerous reasons to want a completely new leadership team, shows just how far they have yet to go to realize the promise of the historic 2010 wave election.

Suppose for a moment that the conservatives Labrador and Scalise both win. What will change? How likely is it that they will move the caucus in a more conservative and more effective direction? Labrador is only in his second term in Congress. Scalise has been suspected of being the current leadership’s handpicked man to tame the independent Republican Study Committee. Those suspicions may have no merit, but he certainly did nothing to allay them last year when he fired the group’s longtime, respected staff director, Paul Teller, for being too aggressive in pushing the conservative agenda.

To be sure, the tea party is still setting the terms of key national debates, as we see with health care and immigration. And still very much alive at the grassroots level, as soon-to-be-former Congressman Cantor, and the currently besieged Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, can attest.

And yet, when it comes to obtaining and exercising real power in Washington, the movement remains weak. It has yet to produce one real policy gain. Think about that. On what major federal issue has the tea party left a permanent, meaningful stamp since John Boehner claimed the speaker’s gavel with its help? On debt? No. On spending? No. On taxes? No. On health care, energy or regulation? No. On jobs and the economy? No. On executive branch error, scandal or overreach? No.

If anything, the tea party has lost ground on all of these issues and more (think: IRS targeting and NSA snooping). The one exception I can think of may be last year’s successful effort to stop the Beltways elites’ proposed intervention in Syria. But then, most Americans are so weary of foreign adventures, it’s a stretch to chalk that one up to the tea party. 

It’s true that progress has been stymied by Harry Reid’s Democratic Senate. But after three years of Republican control of the House, a record so devoid of real accomplishments is hard to defend.

Now, to be fair, there is a lot of play in the joints of terms of like “conservative” and “moderate.” What do they really mean? Increasingly, I think the answer is: not very much. It is frankly hard to explain why Cantor, with a lifetime FreedomWorks score of 74 percent, is more “conservative” than McCarthy, who has 73 percent. (Labrador has 92 percent, though after a much shorter time in office. Scalise has 91 percent.)

The terms “tea party” and “establishment” are more useful than “conservative” and “moderate,” I think. (Don’t get me started on “liberal.”) But they too need to be defined. Some people, including me, think of “tea party” as meaning pro-market, and “establishment” as meaning pro-business. For most questions, I think, those definitions work quite nicely. My own preference, however, is to think in political terms, the emphasis being not on entrepreneurship or growth, but on fidelity to the Constitution and the principle that “all men are created equal.”

“Tea party” to me is a subspecies of “conservative” that denotes a firm adherence to an originalist understanding of the Constitution and a vigilant resistance to unlimited federal power and excessive federal debt. The term also connotes a willingness to actively stand for those things to the point of personal sacrifice. “Establishment” by contrast indicates an openness or resignation to ever-expanding government, and a reluctance to take risks for an original understanding of the Constitution. By these definitions, few congressional Republicans are purely “tea party” or purely “establishment.” Most fall somewhere in between. (“Reform conservatives,” for example, among whom Cantor seems to be numbered, can fairly be described as conservatives and even as populists; and yet their program is decidedly “establishment,” in that it is essentially resigned to the permanence of unlimited federal power.) 

One accomplishment the tea party can solidly boast of having accomplished: the firing, in 2010, of Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. That has undoubtedly slowed President Obama’s agenda on Capitol Hill. Of course, it has not stopped him from using his “pen and phone” to pursue his controversial agenda by way of unilateral, and in a number of cases almost certainly unlawful, executive actions. And therefore, a strong case exists for firing Harry Reid as Senator majority leader too, so at least Obama will have to use his veto pen and not just his executive order pen.

Four years ago, FreedomWorks’s Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe called for a ”hostile takeover” of the GOP. The irony is that, while that takeover has, in a certain sense, succeeded — things that were acceptable when Republicans were in power, like bailouts and entitlement expansions, no longer are — among those of us who are keeping score at home, the realization has begun to sink in: Even when the establishment loses, it wins. Even when the tea party wins, it loses. Why?

Partly, I think, it’s simply in the nature of establishments to cling to power, by hook or by crook. They change shape to survive. Partly, I think it’s because today’s Republicans lack anything like the 1994 Contract with America to unite them and give them an inspiring platform on which to stand. Too many House Republicans seem to think it’s somebody else’s job — i.e., the speaker’s job or the majority leader’s — to do the hard work of building a case for reform and executing a plan to effect it. While leadership’s job is in fact to bring everyone together on a single, inspiring platform, the job of devising that platform ultimately rests with the members themselves, acting as legislative entrepreneurs, pushing ideas, offering bills, forcing amendment votes and so on. Precious few rank-and-file members do those things. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Senator Mike Lee of Utah. 

The sad truth is neither moderates nor conservatives have anything like a Contract with America to run on. Neither McCarthy nor Labrador, as far as I know, has a single inspiring idea or a plan for moving the ball down the field on any important issue.

But McCarthy has this: He can reasonably expect most of his thirty-odd deputy whips, some of whom are arguably quite “tea party,” to support his elevation, while “tea party” backbencher Labrador has only a smile and good intentions. Which of these two men do you think K Street, Wall Street and the “objective” press are going to favor?

My prediction is that, no matter who wins, the post-Cantor leadership team will eventually become pinned down like its predecessors, the reformist impulse drained out of them by the Beltway’s massive gravitational pull — unless, that is, Republicans embrace something like a Contract with America. 

It’s not enough for “conservatives” to elevate one of their own into leadership and then kick back. To be effective, they must embrace a clear agenda and form a phalanx to fight for it, regardless of what their leaders think. To be effective and faithful to their cause, conservatives must put their fiscal, moral and constitutional principles ahead of their party, even when it hurts. No, especially when it hurts.

The establishment has its means of persuasion, of course. Acting through the party leadership, it can deprive people of choice committee assignments, as Boehner did in early 2013 in removing a handful of fiscal conservatives who stood in the way of the leadership’s budget plan. GOP leaders can also connive with the Democrats to pass legislation over Republican objections, as Boehner and Cantor have done on several occasions, most recently in April. But does a leadership that employs such tools really deserve to lead?

From the perspective of those of us who think the Republican agenda should be the tea party agenda of individual liberty, fiscal common sense and constitutionally limited government, and that that agenda should be pursued with “happy warrior” seriousness, the entire House leadership team that took over in 2011 deserves to be replaced.

And yet in the aftermath of Eric Cantor’s surprise demise and Kevin McCarthy’s likely rise, it is hard not to conclude that most House conservatives view themselves as Republicans first, conservatives second — as loyal members of a partisan caucus determined to avoid risks, rather than as a principled faction whose job it is to steer their caucus to save their country. 

Could this be why they fail?

Dean Clancy, a former senior Republican official in Congress and the White House, writes on U.S. health reform, budget and constitutional issues. Follow him at deanclancy.com or on twitter @deanclancy.


[Originally published at usnews.com, Jun. 17, 2014. @usnewsopinion. Republished at deanclancy.com.]

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