Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has been able to count on his Facebook page for stalwart support during his long-running battle with the House Republican leadership, including a successful effort to oust House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
“Keep up the great work,” read a comment posted last week. “We the people thank you for ridding us of John Boehner!”
But in recent days, the tone of the comments on Meadows’s page, and those of the other members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, have changed significantly.
“You truly should be ashamed,” one commenter wrote Thursday. “The people in the caucus will be held responsible come election day.”
“You should all be replaced,” a critic told Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.). Another called Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), one of the most persistent thorns in Boehner’s side, “a RINO establishment lap dog” and “another go-along to get along phony who will GLADLY step on the throats of the Conservative electorate.”
Things may never be the same for the Freedom Caucus after most of its members moved last week to support Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as the next House speaker. Suddenly, they may not be conservative enough for some in the party.
The groundswell of support from hard-core conservative voters that emboldened the group as it battled Boehner and the GOP establishment seemed to subside for the first time in months. That has put its members in the unfamiliar position of defending their right flank.
“Look, I imagine that there’s theoretically a chance that [we] all went from being radical extremist crazies to Washington sellouts in 12 hours,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a Freedom Caucus leader. “But maybe a more likely narrative is that we really think that this is a good step for the conservative movement. And it’s up to us to try to explain that to people, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
They would seem to have a lot of explaining to do.
The anger over Ryan’s ascent has been fueled by voices across the conservative media landscape. On the Internet, sites such as Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report have pumped out a steady stream of anti-Ryan stories casting doubt on his record, while such prominent commentators as Erick Erickson, Ann Coulter and Mickey Kaus have sharpened their teeth and urged conservatives to contact lawmakers and tell them to spurn Ryan.
Particularly brutal have been the syndicated talk-radio hosts who have helped foment the anti-establishment outrage that has kept Donald Trump atop the GOP presidential race and forced Jeb Bush, a well-financed mainstream conservative, to undertake a campaign shake-up.
Laura Ingraham last week called Ryan “basically John Boehner with better abs” and featured segment after segment attacking Ryan’s positions on trade and immigration. She also mocked his desire to spend his weekends with his family.
Another influential host, Mark Levin, lambasted Ryan as a creature of the establishment elite. “I think it’s time, ladies and gentlemen, to choose a speaker from outside the House of Representatives,” he told his audience Wednesday. “This is the best the Republican establishment can do; it’s just not good enough.”
And the biggest conservative talker of them all, Rush Limbaugh, on Thursday called Ryan a favorite of the Republican “donor class” and “the new Cantor” — a reference to former House majority leader Eric Cantor, who was ousted last year in a GOP primary.
Meanwhile, the man who did the ousting — Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) — counts himself among the roughly 70 percent of Freedom Caucus members who say they are willing to support Ryan.
“When they make decisions, it’s not in haste,” Brat said of the caucus. “And so I would ask the American people: Hold your fire. Wait till you see exactly what our group is doing, and I think you’ll see that it’s coherent, it makes sense.”
One problem for Brat and his Freedom Caucus colleagues is that Ryan has remained mum for the most part on his intentions. When he spoke to the House Republican Conference on Tuesday, Ryan set out conditions for agreeing to serve as speaker, including an end to the House rule allowing a speaker to be ousted by a simple majority.
Ryan appeared to soften on that point in meetings with lawmakers later in the week, and Freedom Caucus members say Ryan privately discussed other concessions, including a restructuring of the House Republican steering committee and adherence to the “Hastert rule” requiring a majority of Republicans to support any measure put on the floor.
But Ryan mentioned none of those items in the letter he sent to colleagues Thursday agreeing to serve. He opted instead for gauzy generalities: “We can make the House a more open and inclusive body — one where every member can contribute to the legislative process. We can rally House Republicans around a bold agenda that will tackle the country’s problems head on. And we can show the country what a common-sense conservative agenda looks like.”
That has left a cadre of tea party insurgents, most elected no more than five years ago, in the position of defending their willingness to trust implicitly a 17-year incumbent with a long record of negotiating spending deals with Democrats and backing immigration reform measures that are deeply unpopular on the right.
The latter has proved to be especially toxic for Ryan in conservative circles, to the point that his chief partner in pushing reform legislation, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), said he “had Republican members who are friends of mine saying: ‘Don’t say anything good about Paul Ryan! Don’t say anything at all about Paul Ryan!’ ”
“There’s a small group that wields an inordinate influence and power over the group,” Gutierrez added. “They are slaves and captives to Laura Ingraham.”
Meadows said Thursday that he and like-minded members were more concerned that Ryan might have made contradictory pledges to different groups while courting support last week. And he suggested that Ryan might be at risk of fraying the House GOP anew if he didn’t make a clearer statement before Thursday’s speaker vote.
“It’s important that a down payment be made in order to keep that supermajority intact,” he said.
A handful of House hard-liners, perhaps 10 to 15, remain proudly outside the pro-Ryan camp; most continue to back Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), a backbencher who has emphasized procedural reforms.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking, really,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a Webster backer, said of the Freedom Caucus.
“If you’ve got problems with a man today, and the man tells you, ‘Tomorrow, I’ll be a different person’ — it doesn’t happen,” said Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), who said he has received more than 100 calls over two days from constituents opposing Ryan.
But others say they are willing to take the heat from the base. Commentators and activists might be exercised about Ryan’s immigration positions, they say, but lawmakers are more focused on how he’ll run the House.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) noted that Webster, whom the Freedom Caucus had previously endorsed for speaker, is not considered to be particularly conservative.
“It never was about the most perfect guy with the most perfect voting record; it’s about the person that’s willing to govern in a way that allows conservative ideas to at least come to the forefront, which he has said he is willing to do,” Salmon said. “I think conservatives all over the country ought to be doing cartwheels. . . . We’ve been dealing with eating crumbs off the table. Now we’ve got an opportunity to sit at the table and actually partake in the meal.”
Some simply say they are confident that their constituents will trust them to make the right decision. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said calls to his office were running 2 to 1 against Ryan, but he said passions were at “a much lower level” than after he voted for Boehner in January.
Asked Thursday if he expects pitchforks back home, Buck said he did not: “I’m the guy with the pitchfork.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.