House Republicans Declare Independence

On the cusp of a critical -- perhaps historic -- election year, House Republicans (the faction that rules) have declared independence -- on behalf of the GOP establishment. The omnibus budget deal that Republicans cut with President Obama was surrender, but underlying that was a portentous statement: establishment Republicans affirmed their intention to break away from the party’s conservative grassroots. 

Key provisions of the budget deal can be interpreted in no other way than a premeditated decision to dismiss conservatives on vital issues. The price might be the presidency in 2016, but it could well be a price the establishment is willing to pay for longer term realignment. 

Much of the House Republicans’ eschewing touches on social issues, immigration, and refugees (Syrians this go-round). Their full funding of Planned Parenthood goes beyond crass political calculation to basely immoral. The Faustian deal with Democrats on illegals opens the way to vote-harvesting opportunities for Democrats in future elections, while giving establishment-aligned business interests the cheap labor they desire.        

The budget deal is a dramatic departure for a party on the eve of a presidential election year. It represents a brazen effort to reposition the GOP. Boehner assuredly made his surrenders, but it’s the timing of this agreement that marks it as troubling. 

More so than surrender to the Democrats on the budget, Republicans have clearly surrendered to the nation’s supposed move to the left. Generational and demographic shifts are typically cited. Establishment Republicans see a libertarian stance on social issues as better accommodating the social “progressivism” of millennials and younger cohorts generally, principles and values be damned.   

Make no mistake, the other key takeaway from the budget deal was the Republicans full acceptance of big government. House Republicans swapped higher spending for special interest tax cuts -- and plenty of earmarks. Generous allowance was made for ObamaCare contrary to the oft-expressed -- and manifestly fallacious -- desire to end that misbegotten and choice-stealing federal program. 

With the budget agreement, House Republicans demonstrated their willingness to play junior partners in what grassroots conservatives characterize as the “Washington Cartel,” simply defined as Democrats and Republicans in cahoots to accrue as much power, influence, and money for themselves as is possible. Certainly the GOP aims to contend with the Democrats for senior position in their relationship, but it’s in the framework set by the president and his Democrats.  

There are those who will claim that House Republicans are merely guilty of fecklessness and a flawed but well-intentioned strategy of avoiding confrontation with the president, a confrontation he’s sure to win (so goes the cliché). Why should the GOP pick fights it’s sure to lose? Better to concede issues where the president and his party have advantages with voters. Better yet to pivot election contests on issues where Republicans have the edge. 

But that begs the question: Given the massive capitulation that the omnibus budget deal represents, what issues are left for the GOP to contend? Unless establishment Republicans plan to campaign as Democrats do: through misdirection and outright lies. 

Republicans have effectively blurred distinctions with Democrats on a host of critical issues. Why concede issues like Planned Parenthood funding and support for sanctuary cities when many Americans are in agreement with conservative positions? What do Republicans credibly take to GOP base voters and the broader electorate to contrast themselves with Democrats? National defense and foreign affairs?   

Regarding those concerns, the GOP suffers factional differences. Among all GOP factions there’s general agreement on the need for a strong national defense. But intraparty blocs range from “Big Stick” Republicans -- that may include Rand Paul libertarians -- to neocon interventionists. The role the U.S. should play overseas is contentious internally. Definitions of “national interest” vary. Growing segments of the party -- led by the libertarian-oriented -- reject Wilsonian democracy-building and military interventions without clear-cut national interests at risk. A crisis or crises (terrorist attacks on the homeland) could unite factions.     

So insular and cynical are Washington Republicans that they believe they can yet again dupe conservative voters with conservative rhetoric in House and Senate races across the nation. Perhaps they can. After all, they did so in the past three elections. They’ve suffered no consequences for broken promises. From the establishment’s standpoint, why should 2016 be any different?

In fact, Republicans are likely to retain the House in 2016. The science of redistricting has made many Republican and Democratic seats “safe.” Moreover, by many accounts, the Democrats have had a poor recruiting year, so in “swing” districts where Democrats could take open seats or upend Republican incumbents, the quality of candidate is poor. Primary challenges are impeded by incumbent advantages in fundraising, principally. 

The Senate, however, is very much in play. There will be enough statewide contests where a grassroots rebellion could cost Republicans seats, thereby giving the Senate back to the Democrats. 

Yet another important reason -- admittedly supposition at this point -- that House Republicans are willing to alienate the grassroots in the budget deal is a calculation that an establishment candidate is unlikely to win the party’s nomination. Trump, Cruz, and a fading Ben Carson still command 61.5% in national polling (RCP average as of this writing).    

That combined percentage is part of a trend line that may have caused House Republicans to hedge, reasoning that they need to stake out stronger ground that separates them from an “outsider” nominee. 

Inside-the-Beltway, the conventional wisdom holds that Trump or Cruz would surely go down in flames come the General Election. Of course, the CW emanating from Washington has been wrong many times before. It not only underestimates both men, but cannot possibly account for unforeseen developments that will intervene to impact the dynamics of next November’s elections. Moreover, it overestimates a damaged and maladroit Hillary Clinton in a matchup with either Trump or Cruz. Hillary will have the MSM shilling for her, regardless.    

On the other hand, if a GOP convention (deadlocked or not) affords Marco Rubio the nomination, the omnibus budget deal provisions gives Rubio running room to the left. It may seem smart, but a leftward lurch by Rubio on critical issues provides little in the way of a mandate for conservative policies come January 2017. The likelihood is that Rubio would work with a Republican Congress (or House, if the Democrats take the Senate), to satisfy the agenda made apparent in the budget deal, particularly those elements that he brought into his campaign. Conservatism -- genuine conservatism, not a sham variety -- will be given short shrift.       

We should never discount stupidity and myopia among establishment Republicans and their consultants. But, nowadays, we likewise shouldn’t dismiss cynicism and a flagrant self-interest that guides their actions. Principles will not be allowed to block routes to maintaining or expanding the establishment’s grip on power.    

At a deeper level the budget deal was a startling declaration: establishment Republicans are going their own way. Conservatives can follow if they like -- or not.