Everyone really should be able to admit it is the oddest and most nonsensical fight.
The Ryan budget does raise taxes. It does fund Obamacare. It does break sequestration. And it does nothing to address the debt and deficit. It is a compromised can kicked down the road just to a further distance than normal. In doing so, though, it violates a lot of what the very Republican leaders now kicking the can campaigned against mere weeks ago.
They had said sequestration was the law of the land, just like Obamacare, and if we couldn’t touch Obamacare, we would not touch sequestration. Then they caved. The GOP started 2013 by voting to raise taxes and will end 2013 voting to raise taxes and now we learn make it even easier in the future to raise taxes.
But it is an odd and somewhat silly fight. Conservative groups voiced their opposition and sent out their letters saying, “Don’t vote for it.” That is what conservative groups do. They were going to do nothing more than that. There was no organized will to fight what, on Monday, so many conservatives perceived as inevitable.
Then a comical and strategically miscalculated thing happened. John Boehner decided to let everyone know publicly what many have known privately for a while — he won’t be coming back in 2015 as Speaker.
See, instead of taking it as the usual base angst, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill lashed out. They attacked the conservative movement — and it was the movement as just about every single conservative group in America opposes the deal — for being against the plan before it was released. That happens constantly. All the details are known before the actual plan is released.
John Boehner held a press conference to further bash the conservatives and claim they were doing it for money. The icing on the cake was Congressman Steve Scalise firing the very highly regarded and well respected Executive Director of the Republican Study Committee, Paul Teller, within an hour or so of Boehner’s attack. The grounds for firing Teller, a friend of mine, was a loss of trust. In reality, it is because Teller was the last conservative at the RSC willing to actually point true north toward conservatism instead of bend, like Scalise, toward Leadership.
The RSC, in one move, rendered itself useless and disrespected by the right. The Speaker, in his actions, has declared he will not seek the speakership again, and for what?
An open letter from conservative groups urging members of Congress to not vote for the deal. That’s it. Or at least that was it.
Now the conservative groups feel compelled to actually take action — score cards and voter calls and activist alerts, etc. None of that was going to happen, except in limited circumstances, until the Speaker opened his mouth Wednesday morning.
In large part, this is Bill Clinton’s Republican legacy at play.
Because so many of the reporters in Washington view history in terms of 2008 and an additional, larger crew of reporters, don’t go further back than 2000, Bill Clinton’s role in shaping the current Republican Party is overlooked. But it plays directly into the fight the right is having.
In part, because of the amateur nature of the first couple of years of the Clinton Administration, coupled with the Democrats’ historic defeat in 1994, the nation saw one of the largest shifts in party preference among elected officials in modern American history. Whole towns of Democrats, particularly in the South, woke up one morning and became Republican. Areas of the country that had not seen a Republican elected ever suddenly found no Democrats to elect.
Prior to the mid-nineties, if a conservative group wanted a conservative policy passed, they had to find a way to form the policy and sell it to both conservative Democrats and conservative Republicans. Reagan tax policy in the 80’s was not just the Tip O’Neal and Ronald Reagan relationship, but conservative groups figuring out ways to build a Democrat-Republican coalition of conservatives in Congress to get it passed.
During the Clinton years, suddenly conservatives could stop building bipartisan coalitions because all the conservatives were suddenly Republican. They could work within one party. Over time, the conservative movement and the Republican Party became the same thing. Reaching across the aisle became a skill set left to atrophy because there really were too few people to reach on the other side.
Had Clinton held his original electoral and elected Democrat coalition together, this would not have been possible. But because of choices Clinton made to get himself re-elected, the Democratic Party at large suffered in the South and elsewhere as Clinton reshaped his coalition headed into 1996. Those left behind in his reshaping did what politicians do best — survive. They switched parties. They claimed the mantel of “conservatism” for themselves and pro-life Southern populists could largely get away with it. 2010 was not so much a repeat of this as a finishing off of this. The rest of the Blue Dogs either got defeated or converted.
Once the GOP and conservative movement became synonyms, much of the conservative movement became cheerleaders for the GOP without a lot of intellectual force behind their push. It was team building, not idea building. If George W. Bush decided to do something within reason, suddenly it became conservative. Had he decided to do something outside of reason, like steel tariffs in Pennsylvania, much of the conservative movement decided to keep quiet for the greater good.
Things, however, broke down over time. No Child Left Behind, Harriet Miers, Medicare Part D, Immigration Reform, and then the 2008 re-litigation of the 2000 primary season because Bush failed to have a Vice President to succeed him all rapidly broke down the synonymous nature of the GOP and conservatives. When Bush left and Republicans found themselves having to defend John McCain, conservatives woke up hung over and $10 trillion in debt with a more massive federal entitlement program and a larger federal role in public schools.
Everything conservatives had always fought against, they drunkenly let slide during the Bush Administration.
Republicans in Congress just assumed it would continue. And it did until the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
Most journalistic coverage of the Citizens United case is so badly shaped by partisanship, journalists always get the outcome wrong. The case did not prop up the Karl Rove groups. Those groups would have always found a way to get funded. They had always found ways before Citizens United. What the case actually did was make it possible for conservative groups to break away from the Republican money men. They could go out with empowered grassroots. They could find their own donors. And so they did. But their new donors were much more ideologically conservative than Republican.
So the conservative groups have started becoming conservative again. They are no longer just cheerleading for the GOP. Like the principle behind RedState, they might vote GOP in a general election, but in the primaries and policy fights they’re going as right as they think they can go and still win. And now there is a new dynamic because of this. There is actually enough of a conservative base in the House and Senate beholden to grassroots activists, the GOP finds itself not just having to fight off the Democrats, but also fight off the conservatives.
One of the first things the reshaped conservative coalition did was wage a war on earmarks, which the conservatives viewed as a gateway drug to bigger government. The Republican Leadership went along with it and lost a favored tool to bribe wayward members.
John Boehner, when he opened his mouth on Wednesday to declare he was no longer interested in seeking the Speakership, did so by casting his lot with the party, not the movement. To be Speaker, he’ll have to have both, which is one reason Paul Ryan, now in his quest for the Speakership, is privately grumbling behind the scenes about portions of his own deal. He’s working to keep the conservative street cred John Boehner threw off Wednesday morning. It is Paul Ryan taking the lickings on the Mark Levin Show and with Sean Hannity. He’s now in Speaker seeking mode.
Clinton’s legacy of consolidating the right within the GOP is only now starting to really crumble away. The right is taking on a life of its own again.
That will mean more, not less, fights in primaries. But it will also mean more and better conservative ideas. Conservatives are going to have to start rebuilding coalitions. Skill sets that once atrophied will grow back. The future will be very rough for the GOP, but will ultimately lead to a much healthier, and nimbler, conservative movement.