It has become a cliché to note that the divides that threaten to tear the Republican Party apart, both at the grassroots level and now in Congress, are over tactics and not ideals. Its repetition does not, however, render this truism inaccurate. This schism truly is rooted in disagreements over strategy. It is surely popular today among an influential set of conservatives to believe that their opponents under the GOP’s big tent are, in fact, stealthy Fifth Columnists who share neither their principles nor philosophy. The reality is that the vast majority of those who would call themselves conservatives are true Scotsmen. When the average Trump supporter demands in his or her elected representatives the will to “fight,” the implicit concession is that they disagree with the strategic approach their party’s leaders have adopted and not their goals.
That acknowledgment is not intended to diminish the intensity or legitimacy of the grievances that have put the GOP’s insurgent and establishment factions at odds. At the center of the latest internecine squabble that has yielded chaos in the race to replace House Speaker John Boehner is the group that claims to represent the insurgent wing of the party in Congress: the House Freedom Caucus. This organization has endured intense scrutiny and substantial criticism in recent weeks, and much of that is fair. Not all of it, however, is justified.
Perhaps the most succinct criticism of the Freedom Caucus, a group formed to serve as an even more conservative alternative to the already conservative Republican Study Committee, was made by one of their own; or, rather, formerly one of their own. In his letter of resignation from the conservative caucus, California Republican Representative Tom McClintock sharply criticized the organization for embracing strategic choices that too frequently led it to align implicitly with House Democrats. After making a compelling case in support of that contention, he noted that the group had become “Nancy Pelosi’s tactical ally.” Again, tactics, not principles.
This is a distinction that bears repeating because the House Freedom Caucus’s principles are, or at least should be, widely shared by those who consider themselves conservatives. Those principles were outlined in a questionnaire obtained by Politico that was recently distributed to the candidates seeking the speaker’s gavel. According to Politico’s summary, there are a handful of items the Freedom Caucus views as litmus tests for the next speaker: The decentralization of committee assignments (presumably in order to delink preferable assignments to an individual member’s standing in the eyes of leadership), entitlement reform as a precondition for raising the debt ceiling, the impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, and the opposition to the passage of a continuing budget resolution rather than a series of itemized spending bills.
On balance, these are noble priorities. Perhaps it’s a bit idealistic, but shouldn’t committee assignments be meritocratic?
The apocalyptic rhetoric the left deploys when Republicans flirt with leveraging the nation’s depressingly regular debt ceiling hikes for concessions on spending approaches histrionics, but how else does the opposition party negotiate with a recalcitrant liberal president? If conservatives truly view ballooning entitlement spending as the most threatening of emerging domestic crises, as conservatives did once upon a time, the need to curtail spending is of the utmost urgency.
IRS Commissioner Koskinen has been accused of intentionally misleading a congressional panel amid testimony he delivered under oath. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz accused Koskinen of lying after it was discovered that the backup tapes for former IRS official Lois Lerner’s emails had not all been destroyed, as he said they had. In fact, some of those tapes that were destroyed met their fates after Congress had subpoenaed them. The best argument against Koskinen’s impeachment is that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also lied to Congress and deserves similar censure, but that is unlikely to occur.
And as for spending, there are certainly more than a few items that most – though certainly not all — Republicans in the House and the Senate would like to examine in great detail in an itemized process rather than a CR.
These are virtuous pursuits with which most conservatives would agree, but all of them are in some way tactically problematic. To pursue the project of entitlement reform – a worthy and necessary undertaking – without public consensus in favor of the project would allow a liberal president to demagogue the issue. The result of such a push would inevitably be to set the cause of reforming entitlements back several years. The impeachment of Koskinen is fully merited, but it does open up the GOP to the charge that it has hypocritically protected Clapper from similar consequences for his actions. Picking spending fights amid the budget process is what the process is for, and the present trajectory of the nation’s debt highlight why continuing resolutions are ultimately injurious to the fiscal health of the Republic. Those fights can only be taken so far, however, before they meet with a presidential brick wall and a government shutdown – a political disaster for a Republican Party that will not be rescued again by a disastrous ObamaCare implementation process.
Tactics; not principles. If it were not clear that the House Freedom Caucus is tactically challenged before this week, that condition should be obvious today. This group of conservatives threw the race for the speakership into disorder after their faction united in support behind Daniel Webster, an advocate for process changes who nevertheless had no chance of ascending to leadership. Having robbed Kevin McCarthy of the votes he needed to become the next speaker without Democratic support, their organization quickly devolved into the dog that caught the bus. Perhaps they were stunned by the destructive effects of the wrench they had hurled into the works because the conservative group’s paralysis suggested they never had a next step in mind after derailing McCarthy’s speakership bid.
House conservatives, much like their grassroots cousins, should be lauded for their principles. They are also known to bristle at the criticism of their lack of strategic thinking, which is a reflection of how sorely they deserve that critique. All the principle in the world isn’t worth a nickel if the tactics to translate it into effective political action aren’t present.
Despite all the GOP’s electoral victories at both the state and federal levels in the Obama era, there is a popular line of thinking that contends that conservatism is rarely advanced precisely because it is undercut from within. Those conservatives imagine a conspiracy is afoot, one perpetrated by the insufficiently ideologically committed on their side of the aisle who lack the zeal to see the cause of small government through. But this logic substitutes malice where stupidity would do just fine. Perhaps conservatism isn’t advanced as often as it could be precisely because those who profess their desire to advance it aren’t clear on how that would be best achieved.