Even if House Republicans get a new speaker this week in Paul Ryan, they're not going to get what they really need: a new strategy.
The core problem that afflicted John Boehner during his tenure in office remains in place — a band of hard-line conservatives routinely insists that the GOP use routine but critical pieces of must-pass legislation (debt ceiling bills, government funding bills, etc.) as "leverage" to secure ideological concessions from the White House. The plan fundamentally doesn't make sense and can't work, which most Republicans know but aren't willing to say. It's a recipe for disaster, and it hasn't changed one bit. And in some ways, things may be worse than ever under Ryan, who isn't really a practitioner of the kind of crass transactional politics that Boehner used to make it work.
So while the personal drama is fascinating on its own terms, it's irrelevant in terms of the larger structure of American politics or the consequences for ordinary people. Ryan is setting himself up for a world of tumult, intra-caucus conflict, and talk radio denunciations. The country, meanwhile, can expect a continued spell of unnecessary (and economically damaging) political crises, which it's already endured for the last four and a half years.
The big GOP divide
The unexpected drama around John Boehner stepping down — Kevin McCarthy's exit from the race, the effort to recruit Ryan to jump in, Ryan's conditions, and their quasi-acceptance — distracts from the real issue. Boehner dropped the gavel over a fundamental disagreement over strategy. The push to use must-pass bills as leverage has divided the caucus into three rough camps, and bridging the gap between them came to be too exhausting for Boehner.
Enterprising members of Congress have long tried to use must-pass bills to smuggle the occasional idiosyncratic priority or interest group giveaway into law. But what's dividing Republicans is the notion that they ought to try to use must-pass legislation to pass big partisan and ideological priorities — whether that's something grand like comprehensive entitlement reform, something petty like defunding of Planned Parenthood, or something in between like rolling back Obamacare.
There are basically three schools of thought on this:
- The Pragmatists agree with the vast majority of non-Republicans that this strategy doesn't make sense. Reasonable people do not expect Barack Obama to compromise his core values in order to maintain the basic functions of government, so Republican demands that he do so merely bring the GOP into disrepute. What Republicans ought to do is pocket the gains they have already made and try to win the 2016 election.
- The Fire-Eaters see the Obama presidency as in some important sense illegitimate, and Congress as a crucial check on his unwarranted use of power. On this view, to approve an increase in the debt ceiling without fundamentally altering America's fiscal trajectory is to become complicit in that trajectory. To pass an appropriations bill that fails to defund Planned Parenthood is to be complicit in Planned Parenthood's activities.
- The Timids compose the center of gravity in the Republican Congress. They think the Pragmatists are right, but they don't want to say they think the Pragmatists are right. They would like the Fire-Eaters to go away, but they don't want to denounce them publicly. They are essentially paralyzed by twin fears. On the one hand they worry that if the Fire-Eaters get their way, the result will be a disaster for America that gets blamed on the GOP. On the other hand, they worry that if they break with the Fire-Eaters, talk radio hosts will denounce them and they'll be vulnerable to a defeat in a primary campaign.
Ryan's demands evaded the core issue
Much of the coverage of Paul Ryan's demands before agreeing to serve as speaker focused on his personal desire for family time and relief from the speaker's traditional fundraising obligations. The rest focused on two demands related to congressional procedure — he wanted the backing of all the GOP's subcaucuses, and he wanted to curb the use of a procedural motion (the motion to vacate the chair) that backbench right-wingers used to harass Boehner. It seems that Ryan did not fully get his way on the procedural motion issue.
But to even frame it this way was an evasion of the central conflict inside his caucus. Boehner's problem wasn't that he was beset by a particular procedural motion. His problem was that several dozen members of his caucus fundamentally disagreed with him about strategy, and dozens more wouldn't publicly admit that they didn't disagree with him. Ryan has not solved this problem.
Indeed, he's exacerbated it by focusing the conversation on the motion to vacate the chair rather than on the underlying conflict about strategy. Rather than get the Timids to come out of the closet as Pragmatists, he indulged their desire to signal pragmatism to insiders without admitting it to the public.
Ryan is facing an inevitable cycle of betrayal
The good news for Ryan is that he starts the relationship with a clean slate. He is well-liked by the right wing of the conference in a way that Boehner wasn't. The bad news for Ryan is that he's set himself to develop a toxic relationship with conservative media figures and the Fire-Eaters.
Like Boehner before him, he's set himself up to be a patsy for the Timids' own dysfunctional timidity. Here's how things are going to go:
- During a caucus discussion of a must-pass vote, the Fire-Eaters will propose doing something crazy.
- The Timids will complain about it off the record to Politico reporters, but publicly line up behind the demand.
- Ryan, acceding to the stated wishes of his conference, will line up behind the demand even though neither he nor anyone else thinks it makes any sense.
- Obama will refuse to cave.
- After a bunch of posturing, the Timids will signal privately to Ryan that they wouldn't mind seeing a clean version of the must-pass bill brought to the floor.
- Ryan will bring a clean version of the must-pass bill to the floor, where a coalition of Democrats and Pragmatists will pass it over the real objections of the Fire-Eaters and the fake objections of the Timids.
Conservatives will go crazy over why their leaders have betrayed them again. This is how Boehner did things, and for all his hemming and hawing, Ryan hasn't actually done anything to change the dynamics that pushed Boehner in this direction.
Why things could be even worse for Ryan
One saving grace of Ryan's approach is that before his ascension to the speakership, Boehner's "brand" in Washington was of being a low-key, lobbyist-friendly transactional politician. The bizarre parliamentary two-step he found himself inevitably employing to ease the tensions inside his caucus ultimately served to prove that he was a very skilled transactional politician, and he leaves the job with a better reputation than he started with.
By contrast, there are already two polarized narratives about Ryan. To his admirers in the press, Ryan is a courageous visionary leader who's not afraid to tackle the big questions head on. To his detractors, he's simply a fraud.
The Boehner Way of Legislating is essentially fraudulent, but since Boehner never tried to get anyone to believe he was visionary it did his reputation no harm. But Ryan is supposed to be a Big Ideas guy. Sinking down to the level of doing the dirty work of covering for the Timids' timidity will rapidly burn years of time spent burnishing his credibility, while reluctance to do national fundraising will reduce members' loyalty to his leadership.