The Freedom Caucus Made Ryan โ€“ Now Unmake Him

Recall Paul Ryan’s election as speaker. It was October 2015. Make or break for Ryan was winning Freedom Caucus support. The Caucus is comprised of three dozen or so stalwart conservatives. Caucus members -- including its chairman, Jim Jordan -- refused to run for speaker. Couldn’t win enough votes, went the argument. Ryan made Freedom Caucus votes a condition of his taking the job. He got most of them. And they got Ryan. Every election has consequences.

Late last week Ryan delivered a big fat zero on healthcare reform. A marquee issue of critical importance can’t be botched. Ryan owns it. He wasn’t speaker material to begin with. 

So what’s next? It’s the Freedom Caucus’ turn at the plate. They made Ryan, unmade his legislation, and now they need to lead. Leadership for a majority party isn’t just saying, “No,” obstructing, and undoing. Minorities are reactionary. Conservatism has much more to offer than that. The question is does Jordan, et al, have the chops to lead?

The big fail in healthcare reform should mean Ryan’s resignation. That’s the honorable and practical course. But nowadays honor’s in short supply. If Ryan refuses to leave, the Freedom Caucus needs to push for the speaker’s removal. For weeks, wags on the Hill have quipped that Republicans have “two Budget Committee chairs and no speaker.” That’s about the size of it. 

The Ryan-engineered healthcare bill was a nonstarter for Jim Jordan and his bunch. Freedom Caucus members argued the measure didn’t really repeal and reform. Last week, the Caucus made public demands for Ryan to meet to win their support. Their demands weren’t met, and down crashed Ryan’s legislation.

We can’t hear any more protests from the Freedom Caucus about obstacles to leadership. Parties are full of factions, which are always hard to reconcile. Politicians with skill and moxy find ways of harvesting enough votes to win leadership fights. Given the present climate among House Republicans, Jordan and his allies would have a tough challenge unseating Ryan and taking the speakership. Nothing worth having comes easily.  

If Jordan could achieve the speakership, that then would pose a new challenge.

Leading an often-fractious majority involves grappling with practicalities that collide with ideals. An important challenge for leaders is finding ways of navigating political realities to pass their agendas -- as best possible. Leading is initiating. Reaction there is, but it’s not primary.  

An impression of the Freedom Caucus is its mostly reactionary, that its members haven’t lost their minority reflexes. And its members have a bent for the academic. That’s loyalty to ideas and ideals that never really leave the showroom. Leadership is the route for Freedom Caucus proposals to go from the abstract to concrete. Roadside plays are next to useless.

Until January 20, congressional Republicans had Barack Obama as a foil. It was easy for Republicans, regardless of stripe, to boo and catcall from the Peanut Gallery. 

Republicans cast one vote after another to repeal ObamaCare knowing that President Obama would exercise his veto. The efforts were “symbolic,” though more like positioning to cash in on voter unhappiness with Obamacare. No one faults the GOP for its politics on the issue. In fact, the politics were an automatic.

But through those many votes, Republicans evidently shrugged off thinking through what repeal meant or how replacement would work. The sum of the GOP’s vision was about election-year advantages. It succeeded -- until January, when their pledge to repeal and replace came up for payment.

With seven years to hash out repeal and replace, Republicans wound up making mush. A fellow on Twitter said that Republicans expected Hillary to win, so they didn’t prepare. Two words: “contingency planning.”

Republicans had months and months and months to dialogue among themselves and arrive at a plan that was satisfactory. Factions should have been regularly talking, airing differences, and finding common ground.

“Satisfactory,” for political purposes, means factions are unsatisfied within reason. They get some, but not all, of what they want. They concede elements to others that they’d rather not. Satisfactory is usually the best you get via legislative sausage-making.

Can Jim Jordan and his allies make peace with the grubby realities that accompany leadership? Is satisfactory good enough, or must the ideal become real for this group?   

Freedom Caucus initiatives – healthcare reform or what not – cannot withstand compromise, if passage is the goal. Factional differences must be reconciled, which necessarily involves horse trading. The Senate, with 100 prima donnas, compounds that. And conference committees always exact their pound(s) of flesh.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley understood leadership. Reagan practiced it remarkably. He appreciated that winning was about getting as much of a loaf as practicable.

There’s a variation to the “Buckley Rule”: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.” To wit, get the most conservative measure possible passed. Ryan’s measure wasn’t the “most conservative measure possible.” With better leadership, better crafted legislation that was more free market oriented was doable. Ryan, a blinkered insider, wasn’t up to the task.

Are Jim Jordan and his team able and ready to lead? You don’t drive agendas from the back seat. And if you’re going to drive the House GOP agenda, you’ve got to gamble for the leadership. Go for it. Telling others how to drive from the rear doesn’t cut it.     

There’s a romance among some movement conservatives that defeat is ennobling. Plant the flag, refuse to budge, and go down in glorious flames. The Impossible Dream is a sweet sound. A monument is waiting to be built.

Patton never found defeat ennobling. Principled men with big practical streaks never do. Conservatism is about governing, and that entails navigating the hard realities, and understanding that ideals are, well, ideals.

Freedom Caucus members protest that one of theirs can’t possibly garner the votes to win the speaker’s chair. So, Paul Ryan remains acceptable? Or Kevin McCarthy’s got the stuff to be a great speaker advancing conservative aims?

It’s no fool’s errand for self-described conservatives to seek the House leadership. The time has come for a Freedom Caucus member to make the run, offering fresh leadership with a bold but practical agenda. Ask Newt Gingrich about that. 

Recall Paul Ryan’s election as speaker. It was October 2015. Make or break for Ryan was winning Freedom Caucus support. The Caucus is comprised of three dozen or so stalwart conservatives. Caucus members -- including its chairman, Jim Jordan -- refused to run for speaker. Couldn’t win enough votes, went the argument. Ryan made Freedom Caucus votes a condition of his taking the job. He got most of them. And they got Ryan. Every election has consequences.

Late last week Ryan delivered a big fat zero on healthcare reform. A marquee issue of critical importance can’t be botched. Ryan owns it. He wasn’t speaker material to begin with. 

So what’s next? It’s the Freedom Caucus’ turn at the plate. They made Ryan, unmade his legislation, and now they need to lead. Leadership for a majority party isn’t just saying, “No,” obstructing, and undoing. Minorities are reactionary. Conservatism has much more to offer than that. The question is does Jordan, et al, have the chops to lead?

The big fail in healthcare reform should mean Ryan’s resignation. That’s the honorable and practical course. But nowadays honor’s in short supply. If Ryan refuses to leave, the Freedom Caucus needs to push for the speaker’s removal. For weeks, wags on the Hill have quipped that Republicans have “two Budget Committee chairs and no speaker.” That’s about the size of it. 

The Ryan-engineered healthcare bill was a nonstarter for Jim Jordan and his bunch. Freedom Caucus members argued the measure didn’t really repeal and reform. Last week, the Caucus made public demands for Ryan to meet to win their support. Their demands weren’t met, and down crashed Ryan’s legislation.

We can’t hear any more protests from the Freedom Caucus about obstacles to leadership. Parties are full of factions, which are always hard to reconcile. Politicians with skill and moxy find ways of harvesting enough votes to win leadership fights. Given the present climate among House Republicans, Jordan and his allies would have a tough challenge unseating Ryan and taking the speakership. Nothing worth having comes easily.  

If Jordan could achieve the speakership, that then would pose a new challenge.

Leading an often-fractious majority involves grappling with practicalities that collide with ideals. An important challenge for leaders is finding ways of navigating political realities to pass their agendas -- as best possible. Leading is initiating. Reaction there is, but it’s not primary.  

An impression of the Freedom Caucus is its mostly reactionary, that its members haven’t lost their minority reflexes. And its members have a bent for the academic. That’s loyalty to ideas and ideals that never really leave the showroom. Leadership is the route for Freedom Caucus proposals to go from the abstract to concrete. Roadside plays are next to useless.

Until January 20, congressional Republicans had Barack Obama as a foil. It was easy for Republicans, regardless of stripe, to boo and catcall from the Peanut Gallery. 

Republicans cast one vote after another to repeal ObamaCare knowing that President Obama would exercise his veto. The efforts were “symbolic,” though more like positioning to cash in on voter unhappiness with Obamacare. No one faults the GOP for its politics on the issue. In fact, the politics were an automatic.

But through those many votes, Republicans evidently shrugged off thinking through what repeal meant or how replacement would work. The sum of the GOP’s vision was about election-year advantages. It succeeded -- until January, when their pledge to repeal and replace came up for payment.

With seven years to hash out repeal and replace, Republicans wound up making mush. A fellow on Twitter said that Republicans expected Hillary to win, so they didn’t prepare. Two words: “contingency planning.”

Republicans had months and months and months to dialogue among themselves and arrive at a plan that was satisfactory. Factions should have been regularly talking, airing differences, and finding common ground.

“Satisfactory,” for political purposes, means factions are unsatisfied within reason. They get some, but not all, of what they want. They concede elements to others that they’d rather not. Satisfactory is usually the best you get via legislative sausage-making.

Can Jim Jordan and his allies make peace with the grubby realities that accompany leadership? Is satisfactory good enough, or must the ideal become real for this group?   

Freedom Caucus initiatives – healthcare reform or what not – cannot withstand compromise, if passage is the goal. Factional differences must be reconciled, which necessarily involves horse trading. The Senate, with 100 prima donnas, compounds that. And conference committees always exact their pound(s) of flesh.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Buckley understood leadership. Reagan practiced it remarkably. He appreciated that winning was about getting as much of a loaf as practicable.

There’s a variation to the “Buckley Rule”: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.” To wit, get the most conservative measure possible passed. Ryan’s measure wasn’t the “most conservative measure possible.” With better leadership, better crafted legislation that was more free market oriented was doable. Ryan, a blinkered insider, wasn’t up to the task.

Are Jim Jordan and his team able and ready to lead? You don’t drive agendas from the back seat. And if you’re going to drive the House GOP agenda, you’ve got to gamble for the leadership. Go for it. Telling others how to drive from the rear doesn’t cut it.     

There’s a romance among some movement conservatives that defeat is ennobling. Plant the flag, refuse to budge, and go down in glorious flames. The Impossible Dream is a sweet sound. A monument is waiting to be built.

Patton never found defeat ennobling. Principled men with big practical streaks never do. Conservatism is about governing, and that entails navigating the hard realities, and understanding that ideals are, well, ideals.

Freedom Caucus members protest that one of theirs can’t possibly garner the votes to win the speaker’s chair. So, Paul Ryan remains acceptable? Or Kevin McCarthy’s got the stuff to be a great speaker advancing conservative aims?

It’s no fool’s errand for self-described conservatives to seek the House leadership. The time has come for a Freedom Caucus member to make the run, offering fresh leadership with a bold but practical agenda. Ask Newt Gingrich about that. 

RECENT VIDEOS