WASHINGTON – One group was not surprised by the collapse of Kevin McCarthy’s campaign for speaker: The ultra-conservatives inside and outside the House who have made clear since the rise of the tea party that they have no use for politics as usual.
They have always been upfront: Anyone who believes that President Barack Obama poses a grave threat to our constitutional rights – and that Republican leaders have sold out conservative principles for decades – has no choice but to throw sand into the gears of government. For them, governing with Obama means furthering the collapse of the republic.
Let’s go back to 2010 and see what conservative politicians were saying.
“They think if they make government so large and the debt so big it will be impossible to reverse it,” one Republican warned ominously of the Democrats. “Who would have thought America could be going the way it’s going now? With government taking over businesses? With government taking over health care? We’ve always believed in freedom as a country but now we’re starting to understand that we have to fight for it.” The goal: “unshackling the grip that Washington has on so much of our lives.”
The GOP leadership, he said, lost its way. “The Republican base was angry about the way the party had betrayed its principles,” declared this firebrand, referring to the George W. Bush years. “Under Republican leadership in the early 2000s, spending and government got out of control. And as government grew, there were scandals and political compromises.”
The author of these words: Kevin McCarthy in a 2010 book called “Young Guns” he wrote with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan. Cantor is gone, defeated by tea partyers in 2014. Ryan has good reason to fear the consequences of trying to lead the crowd he and his colleagues helped bring to Congress.
Let’s stop blaming the Republican far right for what is happening to the party. The party leadership brought this onto itself with phony promises and incendiary but empty rhetoric. The right wing, at least, has the courage of its convictions.
Permit me to channel the Freedom Caucus crowd that has every right to tell its leaders: You betrayed us. You talked a good game when you recruited us. We said the harshest things about President Obama and you didn’t rebuke us. You claimed to be as alienated from the old GOP as we were.
In that book, Paul Ryan used tea party language, saying that “business in Washington these days isn’t being conducted the way our Founders envisioned.” Republicans had “lost the true path,” he said, and the Republican House in the Bush years – the one he was part of – was run by “machine-like people.” Any surprise that we’re still raging against the machine?
You young guns said we could get rid of Obamacare – and then you gave us dozens of show votes that meant nothing. You, Kevin McCarthy, talked about repealing the bank bailout and unwinding “the vast amounts of government spending and mandates that distorts the innovation and free enterprise in our financial services industry, our health care system, our car companies, our energy sector.”
How’s that going, pal?
Kevin, you’re also the guy who said that “should we regain the American people’s trust, we will insist that our feet are held to the fire.” Bet you never imagined that your toes might be toasted a little.
And now the whole house of cards has collapsed.
There are a few Republicans who have stood up to the madness. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is aghast that his caucus has become what he called a “banana republic.” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., has talked of coalitions with Democrats to face down his own party’s “rejectionist wing.” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., has repeatedly criticized tactics based on shutdowns and brinksmanship with no chance of success.
But they are exceptions. Again and again, McCarthy and other GOP leaders tried to pretend that two utterly incompatible views of what it means to be an opposition party in a republic that separates executive and legislative power could coexist. They tried to avoid debate over what conservatism means and whether compromise is acceptable. They made inflammatory pronouncements to appease the right wing, a form of disrespect for conviction politicians who care about outcomes and not just words.
Republicans have a big choice to make about what kind of party they are. But they’re most likely to keep papering over their divide with psychobabble about “healing.” This won’t work. Just ask John Boehner. Or Kevin McCarthy.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.