Boehner describes a situation in which he was largely powerless to contain members, who could just go on Fox News and turn him into a pariah if he bucked too hard. The inability to rein in this section of the party — and the section itself — only grew during the Trump era, when a GOP president was spouting many of the same things generally reserved for backbench bomb-throwers.
But in recent days, we’ve witnessed something exceedingly rare in today’s Republican Party: certain elements of it going too far and being forced to retreat.
Last week, Punchbowl News reported that Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) were involved in the launch of an “America First Caucus.” A detailed document laying out the caucus’s platform suggested that it would focus on promoting “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” and warned that mass immigration would have an impact on the “unique identity” of the country.
The reaction was swift. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) even issued an oblique statement not mentioning the group but denouncing “nativist dog whistles.”
Since then, we’ve seen a steady backtracking on the idea. It all culminated Tuesday in Greene effectively disowning it altogether and blaming staff — albeit implausibly on both counts.
“The media continues to lie about a fake story,” Greene maintained in response to a story about Republicans distancing themselves from the group. “They do this all the time to smear people like me and divide the @GOP. I am one of the proudest members of the @freedomcaucus! I don’t need another caucus & this is an attack on HFC.”
Except, as it was quickly pointed out, Greene’s spokesman Nick Dyer had initially responded to the story blowing up by confirming the impending launch of the group — just not necessarily with the draft platform initially reported. He told people to “be on the look out for a public release for the America First Caucus platform when it’s released publicly very soon.”
But Greene in a later tweet Tuesday blamed staff for the drafting of the document and suggested she wasn’t actually involved.
“I have dealt with the staff that had discussions that took place without me or my approval, during the time I was home for my father’s funeral,” Greene said. “People own their own words. Those were not mine.”
Dyer echoed Greene’s comments to The Washington Post. Asked about his initial confirmation of the caucus’s impending launch, he said he had “owned up to my mistake.”
The idea that this was just a bunch of staffers freelancing is very difficult to swallow. For that to be the case, the situation would have been blowing up and her office would have confirmed the launch … without actually checking with her? Second, the draft platform wasn’t just a quick declaration of principles; it was a seven-page document full of details on specific issue areas. Third, other members were showing interest. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) said he was considering joining the group and confirmed Greene’s involvement, according to NBC News, while saying he hadn’t seen the specific language in the document. Embattled Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) even announced publicly that he was joining the group, which Greene now maintains was never a terribly serious proposal in the first place.
Even a day after her office confirmed the group was indeed launching, the initial backtrack wasn’t complete and total. Her spokesman told Forbes that Green was “not planning on launching it at this time,” with the words “planning” and “at this time” being notable inclusions. He added it was “in the early planning stages” but Punchbowl’s report “[blew] it all up.”
If this was indeed a complete nothingburger, why not just say so at the outset and disown it? Why wait for other members to talk about joining it? And how do you not at least check with the boss before confirming the impending launch of a caucus tied to her?
The idea might have been half-baked from the start, but the claim that all of this is just a big media construct that was never taken seriously just doesn’t make sense, especially given that the likes of Gaetz and Gohmert apparently took it seriously and Gohmert confirmed Greene’s involvement.
The initial angle was clearly to try to salvage the whole thing, while arguing that the draft proposal wasn’t a final product. When that became untenable, the distancing gradually became more complete.
This should hardly be seen as evidence that these elements of the party can suddenly be reined in. GOP leaders and even many rank-and-file members spoke out, but the Trump presidency was full of the party standing idly by as Trump stoked much of the same type of cultural and racial grievance that was at the center of the new effort.
If anything, the interest shown in the effort when it looked like it was viable might be the real story here, even if the plans were ultimately scrapped.