Meadows spent the previous six years as a conservative firebrand who perfected the art of political stunts that could grind the House, and often all of Washington, to a halt. Now he has to learn an entirely different role, a work that is still in progress as Republicans have been banished to life in the House minority.
He admits that he saw the majority as likely lost late last summer, before the November midterm elections delivered a body-blow loss of 40 Republican seats.
So he began reading about how coalition governments work in countries with parliamentary systems. He has been studying how other minority parties worked when dealing with a powerful House majority, what strategy they can employ and which moves have an impact. So far, those tactics have been relatively tame.
Angry about the wording of a resolution condemning federal government shutdowns, Meadows’s allies forced a vote asking to adjourn the House on Tuesday — it received just 14 votes.
“I’ve been preparing for this for six months, so just stay tuned,” he told reporters just off the House floor Wednesday afternoon.
Some things have not changed. Meadows was reelected chairman of the Freedom Caucus, the group of roughly three dozen Republicans who are the most hard-line conservatives in the House.
They made life miserable time and again for John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) during their combined eight years as House speaker. They regularly opposed their leadership team’s proposals as not sufficiently conservative and denied Boehner and Ryan enough votes to pass legislation with Republican-only votes.
And on must-pass measures, the GOP speakers were left to turn to Democrats for support, which led to legislation becoming even more ideologically lukewarm before passage.
The Freedom Caucus’s mission often looked as if weakening its own leadership team served as big a goal as was its conservative purity.
In 2015, Meadows turned to an almost unprecedented move that would have forced a vote on Boehner remaining speaker, knowing he could deny Boehner enough votes to win on the GOP side of the aisle.
Boehner resigned rather than make his allies cast that tough vote and keep the gavel with Democratic support. He has never forgiven Meadows.
“When I was looking for legislative strategy, the last place I looked was talk radio,” Boehner told a Monday gathering of local Republicans in Marco Island, Fla. “The second-last place I looked was the knucklehead caucus, who don’t know how to vote yes on anything. They did the president a total disservice.”
Boehner was specifically blaming Meadows for driving Trump into the politically disastrous 35-day shutdown that ended with no dollars for the president’s U.S.-Mexico border wall.
On Wednesday, Meadows declined ownership of the shutdown strategy, stumbling over his words at one point.
“I don’t know about that. I did — I’m not confirming nor denying that,” he said. “I mean, I think it’s been reported, but I’ve never been on the record as saying that.”
The original plan had been to pass a temporary funding measure keeping federal agencies open until Feb. 8. That would have given Trump weeks to try to mount a pressure campaign on the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He could have used the State of the Union address to put the blame on her.
But Meadows lobbied Trump to blow up that plan and announce he would veto the temporary funding bill.
“Mr. President, we’re going to back you up if you veto this bill; we’ll be there,” Meadows said during one of many Freedom Caucus speeches on the House floor Dec. 19 as the Senate unanimously approved the funding plan.
“Quite frankly, now is the time to fight,” Meadows said.
Later that day, Trump told GOP leaders that he would not go along with their plan, siding with Meadows and outside conservatives who wanted a fight for border wall money. On Dec. 22, the longest shutdown in U.S. history began.
By last week, Senate Republicans had enough of this approach, a shutdown with no real strategic planning other than hoping Democrats caved.
When Trump finally agreed to reopen the government, the Freedom Caucus had no leverage. They allowed the short-term funding bill, to Feb. 15, to pass without opposition on Friday.
Meadows now runs the weakest type of coalition in the House: a small minority in the minority. Their leverage against Boehner and Ryan is long gone, as Pelosi has 235 votes on her side before she has to ask for support from any of the several dozen GOP moderates remaining in office.
“My role always changes, you know that,” Meadows told reporters Wednesday.
The shutdown, in effect, demonstrated what might be Meadows’s biggest power role in the new dynamic: outside agitator to Trump, just like talk radio hosts and other conservatives appearing on Fox News shows that the president regularly watches.
He promised that the Freedom Caucus is coming up with ideas to rebel against Pelosi’s majority, to upend the place in a similar style, if not the same outcomes, as its rebellious days in the majority.
“I was in the minority of a majority. Now I’m in the minority in the House. They’re different tactics, but you still have a plethora of options in the toolbox,” Meadows said. “Best done stealthily.”
Or, maybe, they are best done in TV appearances talking directly to Trump.