Eric Cantor resigns as House majority leader after being defeated by a conservative primary challenger. So what do House Republicans do? Replace Cantor with a majority leader arguably to his left.
Newly elected Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy received a 72 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 2013 to Cantor’s 84. That same year, the Club for Growth scored McCarthy at 53 percent to Cantor’s 68. McCarthy voted with Heritage Action just 42 percent of the time to Cantor’s 53 percent. According to National Journal’s (admittedly very flawed) rankings, McCarthy scored 90 spots below Cantor as just the 170th most conservative member of the House. McCarthy supported the same no-win immigration principles that led many Dave Brat supporters to suspect Cantor was an amnesty supporter.
When a genuinely bipartisan majority—most Republicans and most Democrats—voted to curb the National Security Agency’s ability to spy on Americans, McCarthy voted against it. This put the majority leader on the opposite side of up-and-coming young Republicans like Thomas Massie and Justin Amash. The only promising development is that McCarthy broke with Cantor and John Boehner to be the highest-ranking member of the Republican leadership to oppose President Obama’s aborted proposal to bomb Syria. But how predictive is that of his foreign-policy stance more generally?
And yet Raúl Labrador, closer to conservatives and reformers on virtually all of these issues, never stood a chance.
More than 25 years after Ronald Reagan left office, can genuine conservatives ever crack into the congressional leadership? It’s a question asked by many movement conservatives who feel the game is rigged against them. Even when conservatives win, however, they often lose.
Newt Gingrich fought from the backbenches to become speaker of the House. He shed his Rockefeller Republican past and cast his lot with the most combative congressional conservatives. Gingrich led the tax revolt against President George H.W. Bush in 1990 and shaped the Contract with America in 1994.
Within two years, conservatives like Tom Coburn were fighting the House leadership, and Gingrich was on the other side. He derided 11 Republicans, including Oklahoma Rep. Steve Largent, who opposed him on a budget vote, as “you conservatives.” In a precursor to the purges of Amash and Walter Jones, he tried to kick freshman Mark Neumann off the House Appropriations Committee (he only failed because the other freshmen revolted).
Seldom has Congress seen so pugnacious a conservative as Tom DeLay, who like McCarthy climbed the ladder from majority whip to majority leader. Known as the Hammer for his ability to enforce party discipline, within a decade he was in denial about his party’s descent into big-government conservatism. In 2005, DeLay declared to conservatives who wanted Katrina relief spending offset that was nothing left in the budget to cut: “After 11 years of Republican majority we’ve pared it down pretty good.” This was after No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, ballooning non-defense discretionary spending, and a $2 trillion increase in the national debt.
Dick Armey, a former free-market economist, was perhaps the most conservative member of the Gingrich and Dennis Hastert-era leadership teams. He later admitted he would have voted against many Bush administration initiatives had he not been in leadership—chief among them the Iraq War. Even as House majority leader, Armey was initially a public skeptic of invading Iraq. He went so far as to say such a preventive war would be “unprovoked” and against international law. Armey backed down and voted for the war resolution, though he says he did so only after private briefings in which he was assured the threat from Iraq was more imminent than the administration wanted to state publicly—assurances he now believes were untrue.
The popular explanation for why conservatives either fail to win leadership positions—or disappoint when they do—is that conservatism itself is incompatible with compromise and the give-and-take of governing. That might explain why some conservative lawmakers find it easier to operate from the backbenches than in leadership. But the Gingrich and Hastert periods were not known for excessive compromise, even if they ultimately gave way to excessive spending.
Perhaps a Paul Ryan or Jeb Hensarling may someday shape legislation with the same efficacy as a Henry Waxman or Ted Kennedy on the left. In the meantime, conservatives must ask how much of their leadership deficit is due to their movement’s failures—and how much reflects the inherent difficulty of using the levers of power to limit the consolidation of power.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?