On the same day that Paul Ryan was on his heels from the Congressional Budget Office’s brutal assessment of the Republican health-care plan, Breitbart.com launched a missile at the speaker of the House. Under the headline “Audio Emerges of When Paul Ryan Abandoned Donald Trump,” the site released a tape of Ryan on a conference call with other Republican members of Congress, recorded just after the release of the video of Trump bragging about sexual assault.
On the call, Ryan says: “I am not going to defend Donald Trump — not now, not in the future.”
Which isn’t a shock, because that was the reaction of many Republicans at the time. What’s much more interesting is what this says about the battle going on right now within the Republican Party.
Breitbart, the former fiefdom of Stephen K. Bannon and platform for the alt-right, has become one of the most influential media outlets for conservatives. And it hates, hates, hates Paul Ryan. The site features articles with titles like “Paul Ryan Betrays America” and “He’s With Her: Inside Paul Ryan’s Months-Long Campaign to Elect Hillary Clinton President.” Breitbart has also been intensely critical of this health-care plan.
But it’s not just Breitbart: Many conservative groups are also coming out against the GOP plan, as David Weigel reports:
“Ryancare leaves the fundamental architecture of Obamacare in place,” Heritage Action chief executive Michael Needham said on an afternoon call with reporters. Needham was referring to the bill with the name of one of its biggest backers, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. “We have one chance right now to pass a bill on a 51-vote Republican threshold. We can either use that to repeal Obamacare or not.”
Needham was among the conservative leaders invited to meet with Trump at the White House last week, a sit-down that the president’s social-media team promoted as a step toward calming the AHCA’s opposition.
But none of the groups present at the meeting — including Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots and the Club for Growth — have backed off their campaign to stop the bill and demand a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act. FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity have been activating their grass-roots membership to lobby individual members of Congress; Heritage Action, Needham said, was ringing alarms for its 19,000 “Sentinels.”
You’ll notice that even though the GOP bill has the full support of the Trump White House, the conservatives are calling it “Ryancare” as a way of tarring him with what they think will eventually be seen as a failure. The contrast with how liberal Democrats acted while the Affordable Care Act was being debated is striking. Some of the provisions they wanted, like a public option and a Medicare buy-in for those over 50, were dropped along the way to keep the bill alive. But as angry as liberals were about those compromises, they never threatened to sabotage the entire bill. Their position remained that while they were less than happy about precisely how things had turned out, the ACA was still a vast improvement on the status quo, and it might be the only chance Democrats would have to pass meaningful reform for who knows how long.
Why is it that key players on the right like Breitbart, Heritage Action and the House Freedom Caucus (the most conservative members of Congress) aren’t following the same course? Perhaps because they were created or came of age at a particular moment — during the Obama years — and adopted a political style suited to that moment, which they aren’t changing. Some of these actors may explicitly associate with the tea party while others don’t, but they all incorporate at least part of that tea party ethos, which defines itself in opposition to power. They don’t view themselves as people with specific practical goals who are willing to negotiate and perhaps compromise to reach those goals — that’s for the corrupt insiders. Instead, they’re heroic revolutionaries, rousing the rabble and terrifying the establishment.
Which was an effective stance when Democrats held the White House. Now, however, if you’re going to shake your fist at the powerful, it means you’re taking on your fellow Republicans. They aren’t going to go after President Trump, since he’s in many ways the apotheosis of everything they embraced and stood for. So it’s natural to take on the other locus of power in Washington: Congress. And that means Ryan, and eventually also Mitch McConnell (who has been laying awfully low in the past few months).
Even if conservatives can make a substantive case that Ryan’s health-care bill is “Obamacare lite” and criticize it for not being cruel enough to the poor, ideology is really incidental to this conflict. Its true heart lies in the fact that the tea-party right has no purpose or identity if it’s not fighting the power.
We’re probably going to see this dynamic repeat itself again and again as Republicans bring up major legislative initiatives. After health care it’ll be cutting taxes, relieving Wall Street of the burden of government oversight, undermining abortion rights, and down the list of conservative priorities. Every time Ryan comes up with a plan, those on the fist-shaking right will call it a spineless establishment betrayal of conservatism — not because it isn’t actually conservative but because that’s the only way they’re comfortable engaging the debate. They need an enemy to rebel against, and for now, Paul Ryan is it.