The Republican Civil War has moved into its next phase. The establishment has consolidated its power for the time being, mostly quashing primary challenges in the midterm elections, but the Tea Party has not continued to be a thorn in the side of party leaders. A spirited but doomed-from-the-start attempt to wrest the House Speakership from John Boehner signaled that that the Tea Party will not fade into irrelevance. The 25 conservative lawmakers who voted against Boehner didn’t come close to ousting the Speaker of the House, but they registered, loudly and with much publicity, a pervasive Tea Party frustration with the GOP establishment for not going far enough (yes, seriously) in opposing Obamacare and President Obama’s executive order on immigration, among other things.
With the headwinds of 2014 victory at his back, John Boehner has been far less willing to forgive and forget than in the past, coming down hard on those who tried to thwart him in his moment of triumph. Case in point: Rep. Richard Nugent of Florida, who had the audacity to vote for Rep. Daniel Webster (also of Florida) as speaker. Boehner retaliated by kicking both men off the influential Rules Committee. Nugent lashed out Boehner:
“I don’t believe that John Boehner is the best man for the job. This may surprise some people (including the Speaker) but it has far more to do with his leadership abilities than it does with his conservatism… if you can’t lead and you can’t deliver, then your own personal political philosophy is pretty much irrelevant… there have been far too many occasions over the last four years where the House has been ineffective and America just can’t wait any longer. America needs vision, a sense of purpose, and an ability to follow through. We aren’t getting those things.”
Nugent went beyond criticizing Boehner for being too moderate, calling his very leadership into question. Theoretically, politicians can compromise when it comes to ideological disagreements (although, to be fair, this is the modern GOP we’re talking about). Disparaging Boehner’s leadership, on the other hand, is far more personal and difficult to forgive. Nugent captures a sentiment held by much of the GOP, including representatives who oppose Boehner but gritted their teeth and supported him for tactical and political reasons (not to mention self-interest). Nugent insists that he won’t follow party leaders:
“aimlessly just because they have a title over their office door. Respect has to be earned and it has to be continually earned. I can respect the man and certainly the office he holds, but I would be lying if I said I respected his leadership. He simply hasn’t earned it. And if I feel that way and I don’t do anything about it, then who am I to talk, really?”
This anti-leadership position, grounded in right-wing populism, has great appeal in the GOP, even if the establishment appears to hold the upper hand for now. Although it’s easily tempting to applaud all criticisms of an ineffective leader who has played Democrats false on so many occasions, Nugent’s gripes come from a delusional, far-right perspective. Apparently, the House Speaker brings TOO MUCH bipartisan legislation to the floor. In the minds of many conservatives, Boehner shouldn’t introduce anything without the absolute approval of a Tea Party that has proven time and time again that it considers compromise a dirty word. Other “mistakes” include waiting too long to challenge President Obama’s executive orders (lawsuits and promises to challenge those orders imminently are forgotten), taking too long to investigate Benghazi and being repeatedly fooled into bad deals by disingenuous Democrats (isn’t it the other way around?). Setting aside the questionable substance of Nugent’s criticisms, rank-and-file frustration with Boehner in particular and the party leadership in general does not align with establishment’s wish for the GOP to be seen as “responsible.”
Advancing a legislative agenda will require the GOP to either find common ground with President Obama or peel off Democratic votes in the Senate to overcome a presidential veto. Boehner and the Tea Party are never going to be best friends, but if the House Speaker doesn’t even command the basic respect of his caucus, how can he prod the reactionary, inflexible ideologues of the Tea Party into tough votes? Perhaps a strong, widely-respected speaker could coral support in the House for compromise bills cobbled together by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democrats. Or perhaps the Tea Party is too anarchic and unbending for anyone to control. Either way, any chance of success requires that Boehner establish working relationships with unruly representatives like Nugent, whether they directly took part in the revolt or supported it in spirit. The fact that such necessary allies resent Boehner’s leadership and insult him in the press does not bode well for a “responsible” and productive Republican Party. The GOP civil war is just beginning.