This is the second installment of a series on the significance of Representative John Boehner’s resignation as Speaker of the House. The first installment of that piece can be found here.
THE TORIES WERE NEVER CONCERNED ABOUT PROTECTING A REPUBLICAN MAJORITY.
Or, to the extent that they were concerned, they had no idea how to do it. Many of the intellectuals of the Old Guard have screamed through various articles, essays, and interviews that it is the function of the Speaker of the House to first and foremost protect his party’s majority status. Historically, this is of course nonsensical. The position of Speaker of the House is established in the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 2. It predates the current party system or any formalized political parties (Federalists and Anti-federalists aside, as those were primarily one-issue factions). The position of Speaker is not described in the Constitution as being a primarily partisan role and is decidedly in the service of Congress as an institution–not Republicans or Democrats. Nonetheless, the Establishment’s claim is that opposition to Boehner et al. comes from people who are actively undermining their party’s majority and will cost the Republican Party electoral victory.
First, let it be emphasized: losing moderates is not a matter with which the Speaker should be concerned. Nor is it what Speaker Boehner was concerned with. The Speaker’s concern, to the extent that his concerns are partisan at all, should be crafting a principled message on behalf of his colleagues and convincing those who disagree (as opposed to bludgeoning them). However, the Establishment’s policy has not been protecting moderate seats (save their own) but rather to promote a dogma of moderation, and then to muzzle those of principle who don’t follow orders. There exists a very important difference between being cognizant of political realities when promoting one’s principles versus being governed by political realities and having no principles. The latter has been the existence of Republican leadership for decades.
As an excuse (for the Tories have only excuses, not justifications), the Tories wagged their fingers at those who, after the landslide victory in 2010, demanded that they adhere to their campaign promises to oppose President Obama’s nihilistic policies using all means necessary. “Not everyone agrees with you,” lectured the Tories, “and we must compromise.”
But hiding behind the phrase “not everyone agrees with you” is like telling the Wright Brothers “but gravity does not agree with men flying.” Rather than seeing such things as limitations that must be overcome to reach the goal, the leadership instead let such limitations define the goal itself. “Not everyone agrees with you” is the lamentation of those who cry that seats must be won in order to promote one’s policies—the solution to which, according to them, is abandoning one’s policy goals.
And it is simply poor political strategizing to believe that sacrificing integrity in political principles to “moderation” is the path to electoral victory. Recall the presidential campaign of John McCain, a neoconservative promising more altruistic military ventures in the Middle East and watered-down versions of the policies already being proposed by President Obama—more government involvement in healthcare, increased regulation of finance, and government welfare packages for an ailing economy. McCain, always a centrist, struggled to find the middle ground and halfway stance on every issue, losing an election in the process. So too did Mitt Romney, grandfather of Obamacare (by virtue of siring its model, Romneycare, in Massachusetts) and darling of the Republican Establishment. “Make no promises, and you will break none” may be a fine maxim for a hermit who does not intend to interact with other humans, but it is a poor campaign strategy. The candidate who attempts to please all by offending the least will invariably lose (and for the last two presidential elections, has lost) to the candidate who provides the more principled message.
The point is that the Republican leadership has failed in nationwide elections twice. Republicans district-by-district have done better. There is therefore a disconnect between the party leadership that determines the national message, to the extent that there is one, and those Republicans closer to the ground who actually win elections. Those less reliant on the Old Guard for support (largely House members and state politicians) have been more able and more willing to resist pressure from the RNC and its legion of parrots in the right-wing intelligentsia to toe the partisan line as it has existed at least since the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Such Republicans have learned that principle is not only necessary to politics, but that it has the fringe benefit of winning elections. The only question then is what principles to adopt. The Tory leadership has not adopted any, hence the disarray.
Still, some note that such “principled” Republicans failed to win the Senate until 2014, and that Republicans only garnered 52 percent of the popular vote across all House races in the same year. Such facts, they note, demonstrate the need for a more pragmatic (meaning, less principled) Republican Party in order to retain majority status. There are several errors in this assertion, and they will be taken in turn.
First, the failure to regain the Senate until 2014 depended upon a number of factors, and the principle of the candidates was only one. Though basic civics should not need repeating, a chamber in which only one-third of its seats are being decided in any given election year changes partisan control much more slowly than a chamber in which all seats are up for grabs every two years. It should also not be surprising that the year that finally pushed Republicans over the threshold of majority status was 2014—or exactly six years removed from the Democrats’ sweeping victory during President Obama’s initial election in 2008. Because the Democrats won more seats that year, more seats were at risk, and the likelihood of shifting the partisan balance increased.
Also, the incumbent advantage cannot be overstated. It is immensely difficult, for a number of reasons, to unseat a sitting incumbent. This is particularly true when the challengers are inexperienced campaigners and politicians. (See: Christine O’Donnell in 2010 who, though she had run for the Senate seat in Delaware twice before, had never held political office and committed unforced public relations errors throughout her campaign; also, the partisan balance in Delaware was then, as now, not favorable to Republicans.) Though those candidates may have more principle, thus giving them the edge over their Establishment opponents, strong coaching is generally needed to allow such candidates to run a successful campaign. Because Tories unquestionably had more experience at that time, and because the next generation of Republicans was just getting into office, the knowledge necessary to run such campaigns continued to develop among the new Republicans until the Senate was won. Certainly, the numbers of such Republicans should not be overstated, as Establishment candidates continued to achieve seats in the Senate throughout this period. Even in such cases, however, the victory was often due to showing more principle than the Democrats they faced—particularly Democrats who, like McCain and Romney, attempted to provide watered-down versions of Republican policies (see: Jason Carter in Georgia in 2014). And, certainly, the changing attitudes in the Republican Party throughout this period contributed to this shift.
Secondly, the “52 percent” statistic provides only a superficial look at the political climate in the United States. For one, it overlooks the breakdown between each individual district. Most districts are predominantly controlled by one party or another. There are a few swing districts, but the districts that tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic tend to be more populated than the districts that are overwhelmingly Republican. This balances out such that the average district tends to be slightly more Republican than Democratic. So the 52% statistic misses a lot of nuance.
Moreover, 52% of the gross national votes is not very meaningful. The fact that Republicans safely had fifty-nine more seats than the Democrats was far more significant. In any given election year, there are far fewer competitive districts than most people believe—generally less than fifteen. Add in the effect of redistricting and the way votes get divided geographically and suddenly the 52% statistic becomes but one percentage among 435 others. There have even been five cases in the last century in which one party got the plurality of votes nationwide but lost seats in Congress: 1942, 1952, 1996, and 2012. In sum, getting 50% of the national vote is not as important as the Tories would have it seem.
Lastly, the policy of Boehner and his Tories of protecting seats by demanding uniformity and preventing uncomfortable votes has a recent and unsuccessful test case: the Democratic Senate under the now Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Boehner’s leadership style was not particularly different than Reid in the Senate: protect a certain interest and punish or silence those who disagree. Such policy severely hurt the Democrats in 2014, as dissent was not allowed and more conservative Democrats were prevented from voting for measures that were well-liked in their states, such as the Keystone XL pipeline. Reid’s concern was that such Democrats could place President Obama in the uncomfortable position of vetoing bipartisan legislation, particularly bipartisan legislation with broad public support. Boehner’s concern was no different, except that those he was protecting from “embarrassment” were the Tories who wanted to avoid any situation in which they may be called upon by their constituents to be principled, and that those he was silencing were more principled. It is the same situation, but far worse – at least Reid was still promoting principles, and he simply did not let the moderates undermine the (albeit abhorrent) principles being promoted by the President. Boehner, however, promoted moderation and actively sought to prevent votes that were uncomfortable for him and his Tory allies—not those that were actually at odds with the free market principles that the Republican Party at least nominally supports.
If, hypothetically, protecting moderate seats within moderate districts were Boehner’s concern, then let the holders of those seats vote their conscience and break ranks. But such individuals should not be permitted to lead the whole caucus, as is the case of the Tories. When you have a majority of the party breaking from leadership (such as the most recent budgetary vote, the Ex-Im bank vote earlier this year [not the later successful vote], etc.), then that is not really a “break.” That is an entirely different party. That is Republicans being governed by people more likely to vote with Democrats than with them on issues of substance. That was an unsustainable system. It is not exactly a complicated theory of political science that a majority faction in a party will not long tolerate a leadership that votes against them. In proportional representation systems, that is how third parties are formed. In our system, that is how partisan regimes are changed.
Hopefully, Speaker Ryan will institute some changes in the processes of the House—a key desire of those who fought to prevent another hardline Tory from becoming the Speaker. If this happens, the majority of House Republicans (or, at least, a Speaker closer to the ideological median of his own party) should determine the legislative agenda, rather than a minority leadership faction in conjunction with unanimous Democrats. Additionally, individual representatives should be free to support or dissent from the specific aspects of that agenda, without retribution from leadership. That a representative should first and foremost represent the interests of his constituents (those interests invariably being the protection of individual rights) rather than that of his party’s leadership is, after all, the very purpose of a republican legislature.
End Part II.