By Eve Fairbanks
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Sure, 91 House Republicans finally voted to pass a tweaked version of the financial bailout bill Friday. But for the GOP's big honchos, last Monday's defeat in the House of Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.'s plan was still the most stinging humiliation they've suffered in years. To unlock the mystery of the earlier bill's stunning rejection, consider two numbers: 82 and 0. The first is the percentage of retiring Republican representatives who voted for the bill. The second is the percentage of Republican freshmen who did.
Think about that for a moment. The GOP's retirees, the people who finally no longer have to make anybody happy, went overwhelmingly for the bailout, but a grand total of zero GOP freshmen agreed to back the plan that their party's president, Treasury secretary, House leader, whip and ranking member on the Financial Services Committee all begged them to support. John Boehner, the House minority leader, even teared up before the roll call as he choked out the pleading words, "Vote yes." It's basic math: If Boehner could have controlled his freshmen, the bill would have passed. In a political season overwhelmed with claims to audacity, it was one heck of an audacious coup.
What the GOP's next generation did Monday was the political equivalent of a family's babies shaking off their daddy and their mommy and their grandpa and every elder within eight branches of the family tree. But their gesture of defiance was bigger than a $700 billion bailout bill. It was the big reveal to a question we've been asking ever since the GOP flubbed the 2006 midterm elections and embarked on a journey of reinvention: What will the Republican Party's new guard look like? The answer lies in that most extreme and uncompromising of numbers: zero. The new guard is fiercely stubborn, gutsily insubordinate, drama-loving and -- compared with the 82-percent-for-compromise old guard -- unadulteratedly ideological. And it could take the GOP off an even higher cliff than the one the party lurched off two years ago.
Therapists often say that hitting bottom can be a blessing in disguise because it gives you the chance to redefine yourself. And in the aftermath of 2006, when the Democrats retook both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, downtrodden Republicans had big dreams of redefinition. Some held onto that old-time Reagan religion. But the scribes at National Review imagined a Republican Party repackaged around pragmatic voters prone to "talk more about health care than about the budget." Washington Post columnist and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson hoped that the Republican brand could become more compassionate.
The 2007 presidential primary promised to provide a swift survival-of-the-fittest test for the competing new visions. When Sen. John McCain prevailed, it seemed that the winning philosophy was one that, in the main, dumped Republican orthodoxy in favor of solutions-oriented practicality. (In case you've been living in a spider hole this year and haven't heard, McCain likes calling himself a maverick, a doer, a wooer of independents, a post-partisan.)
But McCain's triumph actually hid the fact that, at the lower levels of the party, the emerging center of gravity is more conservative, not less. In the House, such young members as Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), Mike Pence (Ind.) and their ideologically purist soulmates on the Republican Study Committee (which absorbed most of the GOP freshmen) began to influence the party's agenda from the right, clamoring to make pork-busting the GOP's focus, demanding legislation to lower taxes and even mounting a prank revolt on a war-funding bill in May, just to flex their muscles. "The American people thought Republicans weren't acting like Republicans," Hensarling explained.
Across the Capitol, Hensarling's ideological allies in the Senate, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, hauled their own caucus rightward, forcing appropriations freezes, waylaying an intelligence authorization bill that required the administration to report on its secret CIA prisons and killing the moderate immigration reform bill backed by Bush and McCain. DeMint recently launched a political action committee that donates only to senators who have their right-wing bona fides in order. Over the last two years, these new-guard conservatives -- all of whom were awarded a perfect "100" rating from the American Conservative Union in 2007 -- have arguably fashioned themselves into the most listened-to Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The bailout bill was the new guard's biggest show of force yet. Hensarling's Republican Study Committee ("The Caucus of House Conservatives," proclaims its Web site) gave those GOP freshmen the political cover to buck their leadership. They made it clear that their revolt was more over principle than over details, a stand on behalf of what one GOP Hill staffer calls "true, rock-ribbed, hard-core conservatism." Hensarling derided the bailout as the "slippery slope to socialism," while his ally Tom Feeney (Fla.) insisted that the crisis was actually produced by a failure to adequately venerate deregulation. Another young Turk, Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.), even compared the bailout to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. (I suppose that makes George W. Bush a communist. I told you these guys were audacious.)
Not every Republican is happy about the rise of the new conservatives. Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz wrote last week of "a veteran of a past Republican administration" who "could barely spit out his contempt Monday for the actions of the House Republicans. 'They would rather be right in their views -- that ideology counts more, that ideology is crucial in any decision -- rather than making incremental progress.' "
But Republicans like that guy will have to get used to the growing influence of the conservatives. They have enthusiasm and demographics on their side. Moderate Republicans are getting offed all along the Eastern seaboard; eager grassroots activists are nominating right-wingers such as New Mexico's Steve Pearce and Virginia's Jim Gilmore in Senate primaries; and the American Conservative Union's congressional ratings dramatically show which way the wind is blowing. The Republicans who are retiring this year got an average ACU rating of 78 in 2007, placing them squarely between conservatism and centrism. But by my calculations, the Republican freshmen -- the vanguard of the generation that will be replacing these fleeing moderates -- got an average rating of 97.
If you're a true, rock-ribbed, hard-core conservative, you're probably happy about all this. As a card-carrying moderate weenie, I'm not, obviously. But it's not just the policies of the GOP's new guard that spell trouble; it's the attitude. What these young Turks do share with McCain is a taste for the grand gesture and the attention-getting stunt, the determination not to go gently into defeat and the psychological pleasure derived from creating a whole lot of political Sturm und Drang. After their May revolt on the war-funding bill, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) challenged Mike Pence about why on Earth his faction had bolted on what was supposed to be bipartisan legislation. "Never stop fighting," Pence replied.
But all this drama, fun as it is, doesn't make you look like you're ready to be at the governing wheel. (See McCain, John, and recent polling.) And it's this attitude -- the thrill of doubling down on ideology, of damning those torpedoes -- that helped get people such as Pearce and Gilmore nominated in states that obviously won't support their degree of conservatism. They'll probably lose in November, and Republicans will be two Senate seats closer to being ideological irritants rather than the Democrats' serious rivals.
If the GOP's ultimate goal is to take down the Democrats and regain power, then I'll let Jeb Hensarling make the case against his new guard's strategy in his own words. After the 2006 defeat, Hensarling laid out how he thought the GOP should proceed: "Like mosquitoes in a nudist colony," he said, "Republicans will have more than enough opportunities to show the voters we deserve our conservative brand back." It's just the strategy of ideological irritation and provocation he went on to undertake.
An attack of mosquitoes in a nudist colony would, quite literally, be a frightful pain in the bum. But who thinks that nudism will meet its end because of mosquitoes?
Eve Fairbanks is the New Republic's congressional correspondent.