The GOP Establishment's War with its Base

In discussing the House speakership mess on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, Karl Rove enthusiastically pointed out that the 40-member Freedom Caucus represents a mere fraction of the House, with only 1 out of 6 House Republicans as members.  The implication is that the Caucus represents a paltry 17% of conservatives in the nation, which doesn’t justify the hullabaloo.

But this ignores the fact that the vast majority of conservatives in the GOP base -- who identify with the Freedom Caucus -- supported and voted for the majority of House Republicans.  Just because a House Republican is not a member of the Freedom Caucus, does not mean the people who elected him do not support the Caucus.  Indeed, base voters in the last three congressional elections expected candidates to return to conservative governance guided by conservative principles.  That that hasn’t panned out is an understatement. 

The sentiment expressed by the “we know better” class of seasoned political journalists, politicians and political consultants, is based on the assumption that the Freedom Caucus is a rogue band of conservatives gone wild, a “hard core, extreme” element in the GOP, and a temporary irritant the rest of the party must abide until it can be neutralized.  They embarrass party elites, give unnecessary fodder to the media, and are mistakenly blamed for the low approval ratings of Congress.

The reason we are in this internecine battle within the GOP is because the base has been ignored and marginalized by candidates and consultants for too long.  It is this behavior that will rip the party apart if there is no change.

The fact is, 62% of Republicans feel betrayed by the party and, to prove it, roughly 60% of primary voters are currently supporting political outsiders like Trump, Fiorina, Carson and Cruz.  This isn’t just an ad hoc collection of misbegotten tea partiers hijacking the GOP for kicks.  Strip away ubiquitous campaign rhetoric about tapping into anger and frustration, and we are left with the forgotten majority within the GOP -- the base -- taking a firm stand.   They will no longer succumb to elite pleas to vote for this guy because he’s the only one who can win, cross the aisle and get the job done. They will no longer shore up Republicans who support legislation that undermines their interests.

If leadership foolishly continues to turn a blind eye, that stand could very well be a last stand.

Imperious experts caution that this kind of intransigence will not work in Washington -- it will prevent legislators from building the consensus they need to legislate.  But there are scant, if any issues, on which there is true consensus.  The party of intransigence is actually the Democrats with their “our way or the highway” attitude. Republicans don’t have an intransigence problem; they have a conciliatory problem.  They lose battle after battle because they are an ineffective counterweight to the Democrat-Media Complex (DMC).  They do not have an agenda or a list of articulated conservative principles to serve as their guide.  They do not have a rapid response strategy, let alone a team to take congressional fights to the media -- especially on issues where the country leans right, like the Iran Deal, Planned Parenthood, tax reform, regulatory reform, enforcement of immigration laws, Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, or TPP. 

Republicans rarely call Democrats out.  They do not protect their own when they are attacked.  They readily cave in to DMC demands for resignations, retractions, recriminations and reprimand. Republican leadership has been AWOL for too long.  That is why John Boehner was pressured to resign.

I once asked John Boehner about his strategy against the Democrats in 2012: what their Achilles Heel was that he could exploit.  I was initially met with a blank stare but his eventual response was, “You know, I’ve never been asked that before.  I’ve really never thought about it.  I don’t have an answer to that.”

If there was any doubt that the GOP leadership was winging it, that settled it for me.

The GOP cannot thrive without its base of “hard-core” social and fiscal conservatives, “extreme” tea party activists, and pesky grassroots conservatives who, in the words of Rep. Peter King, are making Republicans look crazy.  If not for the votes of the tea-sipping, gun-toting, bible slappers in the base, Republicans like John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, Julie Ellmers, Martha McSally…and Peter King, would not have been elected.  To dismiss the 40 in the Freedom Caucus and the millions of conservatives they represent, is to dismiss the 62% of Republicans who feel betrayed by their own party. 

In the past, conservative voters held their collective noses and voted for candidates who were conservative-lite.  As devotees of William F. Buckley they “voted for the most conservative candidate who could win.”  But the yields from that strategy have proven fruitless and downright deleterious. 

It’s unlikely that voters will maintain that kind of party devotion with regard to suspect GOP candidates in future contests.

Do not attempt to justify this neglect by claiming Republicans only had one-half of one-third of the power in Washington, or don’t have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate or enough votes to override a presidential veto, or, because Obama is in the White House. 

We know all that and we elected you anyway, on the promise that you’d stand on principle -- not play the game, or suck up to leadership to capture the best chairmanship, or seek common ground -- even when none exists -- or compromise when it would endanger the very security, liberty, and prosperity of the people who voted for you. 

I personally worked hard to create alliances among conservative groups and Republican organizations and spent a great deal of energy discouraging naysayers from forming a third party -- which I still do not support. But I cannot promise that the 62% of Republicans who feel betrayed will not throw up their hands in disgust and declare, “The GOP is no longer to be trusted…or entrusted with our votes.  We are going elsewhere.” 

The Freedom Caucus is only 40 members strong because the other 207 don’t have the political fortitude to be the conscience of the Grand Old Party. Too many House Republicans care too much about their popularity and having friends across the aisle.  Ironically, the base doesn’t care if Republicans get along with Democrat counterparts or reach across the aisle to work with political enemies. The base does care that conciliation with present-day Democrats is a one-way street and they never hesitate to stab Republicans in the back while patting them at the same time.

We are at an inflection point battling for this country’s cultural, economic and geo-political survival.  Seeking common ground and compromise cannot be effective when our negotiating partners are control freaks who have mastered the art of demagoguery.

Peter King said the Freedom Caucus is hijacking the party, but it’s the Democrats who are hijacking the country and too many Republicans we put in office are enablers. By electing them, we enable the enablers.  The Freedom Caucus and the GOP base are a bulwark against any more enabling.

It’s not crazy, Peter King, that 40 principled Republicans give voice to millions.  It’s not crazy to slow things down in the House, even block harmful legislation.  It’s not crazy to demand the ouster of the Speaker when only 2% of Republican voters strongly approve of congressional leadership.  It’s not crazy to demand that leadership unite the party and set an agenda based on conservative principles.  It’s not crazy to remind members that they do not have to compromise when it is, in fact, capitulation.

What is crazy is demanding the ouster of one Speaker only to replace him with a younger, paler clone with a lower IQ.  What is crazy is pushing a once promising, Tea Party-supported representative to take a job he doesn’t want, and expect he’ll change his votes on immigration, TPP and TPA.  What is crazy is voting for Republicans who have failed us and expect them to change.

The base has a habit of cutting candidates considerable slack thinking Maybe this time they’ll come through.  But, like children, they will learn only if we follow through on our threats and the consequences are painful.    

That means successive elections will see fewer Republicans vote for flawed candidates who fail the conservative smell test.  They will stay home, vote for the libertarian -- even vote for the Democrat -- and will continue to do so until there is change in the GOP or a third party alternative emerges.  Either way, it’s painful.  But the party has only itself to blame.

Some will say it’s cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face and, in some sense it is, but what else can be done?  The conservatives in the base aren’t Peter King’s crazies hijacking the party, but it would be crazy to vote for turncoat Republicans again and again and expect different results. 

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