Scramble for a new Speaker

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 31-

This week:

  • Danger in Boehner’s lame-duck
  • Conservatives are doomed to be disappointed with his replacement
  • Speaking of disappointment….Scott Walker.

House 2015

Boehner lame-duck: Conservatives mostly celebrated the announcement from Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that he was retiring as Speaker of the House (and from Congress) at the end of October. More on what that means in a moment.

But if conservatives are going to be expressing emotion at the moment, it should probably instead be concern — especially about what Boehner could do before his term is over.

There is much talk now about who will succeed Boehner. But at this moment, there is no announced or likely candidate for Speaker who supports reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. Even Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Boehner’s next-in-line and the putative establishment candidate for speaker, has already come out against it, and any prospective conservative challenger will surely oppose it as well.

Conservatives have complained a lot about Boehner’s speakership, often about things that he had little or no control over. But they should be positively alarmed to hear of Boehner’s aspirations to move Ex-Im reauthorization as part of his swan song. The other things Boehner hopes to move include a transportation bill and a budget deal that changes the current budget cap arrangements.

Ideology aside, it stands to reason that the guy who’s quitting next month should not be setting the agenda for years to come. But the spending caps and the expiration of Ex-Im are also among the biggest accomplishments conservatives can claim from the Boehner era.

The next Speaker: So far, only Rep. Dan Webster, R-Fla., a real longshot, has rushed forward to declare his paul ryancandidacy for Speaker. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has ruled himself out. So has House Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who has said he will run for Majority Leader if Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., becomes Speaker. McCarthy will probably seek the position (he hasn’t announced yet), and there will probably be others as well — perhaps Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, or Pete Sessions, R-Texas.

Party members are expected, on the House floor, to back whomever the party chooses in advance in a closed-door vote. In that closed-door vote, as many ballots will be held as is necessary to produce a majority winner.

It’s too early to say how that battle will turn out, but it’s never too early to point out that it probably doesn’t matter as much as you think who replaces Boehner. What really matters is not who leads, but what the caucus will tolerate from him. The caucus is not going to change overnight, and so Boehner’s exit probably won’t have the effects that some conservatives seem to expect.

All other things being equal, it’s probably better to have someone in the slot who is ideologically reliable. But a more conservative Speaker or majority leader does not necessarily make for a more conservative House agenda.

Changes in party leadership matter mostly from a technical perspective rather than an ideological one. New leaders may be stronger or worse fundraisers — an important thing to remember, since that’s a huge part of the party leader’s job. They might be more or less competent at specific things, such as whipping votes or outmaneuvering the opposition. They may have broader visions (think Newt Gingrich) or narrower ones (think Dennis Hastert).

But party leaders cannot be counted on to change the people who elect them., i.e. the members of their caucus. The idea that a stronger, more conservative Speaker gets you a whole new House Republican caucus is widespread, but incorrect. All it really guarantees is a new set of House leaders that conservatives can be disappointed by later on.

A great leader can change the political character of a nation and its population. Presidents Reagan and Clinton can both be viewed in hindsight as leaders who successfully persuaded millions of people to change their politics. But the electors of a party leader are all seasoned politicians and members of a legislative body. They are less susceptible to a leader’s transformative charms and more precise about their own self-interest. Unlike the broader electorate, they can also dump their leader at any moment they wish — there’s no fixed term.

Parties adopted the caucus system and selected legislative leaders for purposes of efficiency. A group of 240 congressmen, left to act independently, will accomplish far less and find itself thwarted more often if its members do not mutually agree to entrust major decisions about tactics and legislative agenda to a smaller group. Members’ opinions will always vary and often clash, but when they move to the floor, everyone has to be on the same page. This is why members of both parties are always expected to vote with their party leadership on floor rules, even if they sometimes vote against them on legislation and amendments.

This all means that a legislative leader’s personal ideology matters less than one might expect. A more conservative Speaker or Majority Leader does not necessarily mean a more conservative House. In fact, a relatively moderate leader could steer his caucus in a far less moderate direction (take Harry Reid as an example of this for the Democrats). A relatively conservative leader can defang his party’s conservatives (take Tom DeLay as an example of this).

The methods and results of leadership are effects, not causes, of a caucus’s ideology. There is only one way to make leaders think and behave differently, and that is to elect more members who will prompt them to think differently.

To understand why this is so, consider it from the leaders’ perspective: They spend their every waking hour raising money for their members, and listening to complaints from each one that their priorities are being neglected or that their seats are in danger if they follow the party’s plan to vote for this or that. A leader who fails in keeping his constituents (his members) happy and getting them re-elected will not last long, and so he is always looking for ways to accommodate everyone as he can, and then demanding from them from when he has to.

Conservatives want one of their own as speaker now, but that is not a sufficient condition to bring about change in the House. Whoever becomes Speaker will have to face the same challenges and lead the same group of congressmen as Boehner, and as a result, his (or her) decisions will probably look a lot like the ones Boehner has been making.

This implies that most of Boehner’s decisions as Speaker since 2011 have been predetermined for him in the House. The great danger at this moment, as noted above, is what Boehner could try to do now that he has nothing to lose.

The bottom line: If you want a more conservative leader, it won’t do to choose a different guy with a better voting record or even a more confrontational disposition. Rather, you need to elect a larger and more conservative crop of congressmen, or otherwise change the calculation for everyone (for example, by electing a Republican president or a Senate supermajority).

This is the work of multiple consecutive elections — something Democrats accomplished when the elections of 2006 and 2008 empowered their liberal wing. Republicans, for all of the success they enjoyed in the Obama era, never managed to pull off two in a row, and so the desire for change remains pent-up and frustrated.

Ideally, the next Speaker will be a conservative who is eventually willing at times to do what Speaker Dennis Hastert never would — to work against a Republican president. Part of the reason public approval of Congress has been so low for so long is that congressional leaders have been institutional failures. Instead of working for what their voters believe in, they tend to play goalkeeper and protect a president of their own party from any embarrassment. This cost Harry Reid dearly in 2014 — it cost Republicans dearly in 2006.

Which is to say, the Republican congressional leadership is probably despised for all the wrong reasons. The problem has never been a failure to symbolically defy President Obama. The great crime against conservatism in the Bush era, and the movement’s greatest modern obstacle, was a Republican Congress content to play a subservient role to a Republican president’s agenda.

More than merely finding a conservative replacement for Boehner, conservatives need to think about the long term. The real goal is one that’s much more difficult than simply replacing a Speaker or even ousting one. The focus must be on finding and electing dozens of new Republican candidates to Congress who will back up any Speaker who is willing to defy a straying President Bush, Fiorina or Rubio.


President 2016

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Scott Walker: He was once the on-paper frontrunner. But at the end of last week — amid all the other news — Walker was already an afterthought.

He was probably wise to drop out of the race before it became absolutely necessary, because that was where things were headed. But the big question is how everything went so terribly wrong for him.

The immediate cause of Walker’s demise was his decision to spend big on staff and run a campaign that wasn’t sufficiently focused on Iowa. But the reason this strategy could never work was his decision to pull out the weather vane on a number of key issues. Walker might have been able to overcome his relatively poor grasp of foreign policy or his weakness in dealing with the press, but his truly fatal decision was the one he made when he began pandering on issues like ethanol (he went from against to for) and immigration reform (for to against).

Walker’s advantage as a candidate had been that he had the record to prove his bonafides. No one could credibly claim he wasn’t a conservative, because he had walked the walk. He had done the hard part already. Republican primary voters would respect him for the battles he’d fought, even if they didn’t agree with him on every issue.

But that sort of respect evaporates when a candidate shows that he will say almost anything to get more people to like him. As Yogi Berra might have put it, people don’t always want to be told what they want to hear. The Walker who held off Wisconsin’s unions — the one who stuck to his guns and bravely suffered the consequences until achieving victory — just never showed up in the 2016 presidential race.  

HillaryClintonHillary Clinton: Clinton is now at the point where she performs worse in a general election among female voters than Joe Biden would against any of the leading GOP candidates. And women, of course, are the great hope of her campaign — they are supposed to provide that extra oomph next November, her replacement for Obama’s unprecedented (and probably unrepeatable) support among black voters.

Democratic voters are beginning to worry, and accordingly Clinton’s nationwide primary lead has sagged to just seven points in what essentially looks like a three-way contest between her, Biden, and Bernie Sanders.

Biden will probably have the money he needs, having locked down many Obama donors. But he has to make up his mind soon. As we have noted previously, Bill Clinton was the last successful Democratic candidate to wait until October of the off-year to announce. Biden faces much more formidable obstacles this year than Clinton did in 1991 — to be precise, Biden faces Team Clinton. Perhaps Obama overcame her, but can this old white man do it?

Biden also needs to make sure that when he enters the race, he does so at Clinton’s expense. It’s no good for him just to split an anti-Clinton vote with Sanders — he has to erode her support and tough it out as Sanders wins the first few primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, as he might well do in a three-way race.

Clinton continues to look like a general election loser, at least assuming Donald Trump doesn’t win the GOP nomination. But don’t underestimate Team Clinton’s willingness to draw Biden blood in a fight to the bitter end. This is probably her last shot.