Conservatives Are Dangerously Overinterpreting the Speaker’s Race
Earlier today John Boehner was re-elected as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, despite the defection of 25 Tea Party-type Republicans, who split their votes among three other candidates: Ted Yolo, Daniel Webster, and Texas’s own Louie Gohmert.
The charge against the incumbent was, basically, that he is insufficiently conservative. And the effort was clearly quixotic. Had the conservative faction been able to muster a few more votes they could have forced a second round of voting. (Boehner needed a simple majority of the chamber to get elected, but Democrats, the minority party, had voted for Nancy Pelosi.) Even if Boehner had got spooked and dropped out, though (which was apparently the plan, such as it was), the conservative Republicans never had an endgame here, because a schism in the majority would have ultimately yielded a moderate. That is, of course, how Joe Straus became Speaker of the Texas House in 2009. The chamber’s Republican majority was divided between several candidates; Democrats, seeing which way the wind was blowing, voted as a bloc in favor of the Republican they found most palatable.
For some conservatives, was a black mark against Straus, and a number of subsequent Republican primaries have hinged on which candidate would work hardest to oust Straus. However, conservatives didn’t manage to unseat him in 2011 or 2013, they’re not going to do so in 2015, and by fighting on this particular hill they’re ultimately hurting themselves rather than the so-called RINOs. The same will be true of national conservatives if they decide to think of today’s vote as a litmus test.
So in case grassroots activists are going down that path, here’s why it’s a bad idea.
1.The math was never going to work. The number of “real conservatives” in the House may have grown since Boehner was first elected, but the Speaker is elected by the House as a whole, not the majority party. As long as Republicans hold fewer than, say, 400 seats, a Tea Party candidate would have to win a supermajority of the Republican caucus to offset the inevitable coalition of Democrats plus RINOs.
Conservatives in Texas have been trying to relitigate this logic since 2009, to no avail. This year, for example, Tea Partier Scott Turner is planning to challenge Straus when the Lege reconvenes next week. There’s no reason Turner shouldn’t throw his hat in the ring—it’s a free country—but as a result of the math he’s not going to win, and anyone insisting otherwise is setting themselves up for disappointment.
2.On a substantive level, the opposition to Boehner confused ideology and process. Despite the job title, public speaking is an optional part of the Speaker’s job. In the US House he makes committee assignments, directs the workflow, and helps arrange the order of business. In other words, the speaker’s management skills are at least as important as his ideology—especially, one would think, for the people who actually have to work with the guy. The same is true in the Texas House, which is why Giovanni Capriglione, despite being a Tea Party guy, has pledged to support Straus over Scott Turner. That’s presumably why some Tea Party Republicans, such as Idaho’s Raul Labrador, voted for Boehner. The vote doesn’t mean Labrador thinks John Boehner is the greatest Speaker of all time; no one thinks that. It has a more narrow meaning—viz, that he thought Boehner was a better option than Gohmert. That’s hardly unreasonable, politics aside.
3. Over the short term, the Congressional conservatives damaged their negotiating position within the Republican caucus by staging a record vote on an issue that inspires legitimate disagreement within their faction. Since 2012 Boehner has clearly been afraid of antagonizing the Tea Party. That’s less likely to be the case now that the Tea Party caucus has demanded that they be counted. It’s possible that on certain issues the conservative faction of the Republican caucus may be able to muster more than 25 votes against the RINOs, but it was the Tea Party, not Boehner, who described this as a defining issue. And in light of the results, it’s the Tea Party that’s now on the back foot in the chamber. Similarly, in the Texas House, the Tea Party Republicans never amounted to a majority of the caucus, much less the chamber. But in 2013, at least, the small size of that subset wasn’t clear until the final weeks of the session, when a handful of hardliners voted against the budget. This year, if there is a record vote on the Speaker’s race, the size of the Tea Party faction will be clear from the beginning of the session—and that’s why it’s Straus’s supporters, not Turner’s, who want the record vote.
For those reasons, the grassroots conservatives who called on Congressional Republicans to oppose Boehner were effectively asking them to go to bat for a losing cause–and a politically damaging one. It wasn’t necessarily an unworthy cause; no one owed Boehner a vote. Similarly, Texas representatives who genuinely think Scott Turner would be a better Speaker than Straus have the right to vote that way, and it would be petty of Straus to penalize them.
But neither was the cause necessarily virtuous. It can easily be understood as an administrative matter rather than a referendum on values. It’s therefore risky for grassroots conservatives to interpret a vote on a speaker’s race as a statement of principles, and to treat it as a purity test in subsequent primaries. Texas’s conservatives should have realized this years ago. National conservatives should learn from our example, congratulate Boehner and quietly move on.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)