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Why Can’t Conservatives Crack the Leadership?

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 [1] 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 [2] 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 [3].

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? [4]

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24 Comments To "Why Can’t Conservatives Crack the Leadership?"

#1 Comment By William Dalton On June 23, 2014 @ 12:39 am

Raul Labrador never had a chance to upset Kevin McCarthy for the simple reason that he had not racked up the number of favors McCarthy had during years of working his way up the House leadership ladder. Labrador’s positions on government policies had nothing to do with it.

Or did it? How does a Congressman curry favor with fellow Congressmen, so as to have their private mobile numbers on their cell phones, so as to acquire to influence to scare as well as cajole fence-sitters into line? It is not usually through orchestrating the kind of compromises where one Member says, “I’ll cut your government program if you cut mine”. It is most typically the kind of legislation that moves in the opposite direction – the kind that gets a Congressman a Federal grant or tax deduction for some popular or powerful interest in the Congressman’s district.

For conservatives, by which I mean those who are really serious about cutting the size of government instead of just campaigning on the theme, to take control of the Republican leadership it will have to be by forming a strong and effective caucus for doing so – one that will stick together in leadership contests to elect candidates who may have done nothing to help them in their districts or get them reelected, but are committed to the ideals to which they pledged themselves. I wish someone in Washington would get them in a room together, spell this out, and then ask the question, “Will the real conservatives please stand up?”

#2 Comment By Curle On June 23, 2014 @ 2:13 am

A couple of observations based on experience, including experience with some of the people of whom you speak.

1) A writer for an outlet like this is not likely to fully grasp the political naivete of many on the right. Naivete that borders on egregious ignorance. Too many members of the ‘base’ ultimately arrive at the correct answer to a political question but have no real ability to articulate their path of reason in any serious way. In leadership they need people who can articulate things by reasons that don’t rely on talk radio or by quoting the Bible. There are fewer people like that elected as Republicans than you think.

2) Because so many are insubstantial thinkers they come to over rely on staff who are themselves heavily motivated by careerism. Careerism leads one to constantly evaluate how options will help you continue a career in politics, especially if your member leaves office. The way to do this is through lobbying and most lobbying jobs are with business interests who don’t really care at the end of the day about cutting government spending as long as someone else, the middle class for instance, is paying the bill. Nor does business particularly care about a whole host of Republican positions. Since business has the money and can lure the careerists, the Rs are inherently trapped by their dependence on people who see their future in the business community.

3) Too many come to DC and surround themselves with new people. They are unable to bring the folks who helped them rise back home, and who care most about conservative values, with them to DC. Instead they get overly young and inexperienced, not to mention shallow, careerists who aren’t as inclined to hold steady on the major issues. In other words, they are away from home and become surrounded by a new kind of person. Someone who isn’t all that good for them. One member of the current R leadership married a person they met for the first time after arriving in DC, a person, oddly enough, with no partisan political background whatsoever. This, after years in conservative trenches back in the home state and relationships exclusively with conservative activists. What are the chances some random DC person is going to be the kind of conservative partner a newly minted ‘conservative’ congress critter needs to hold firm to principles developed and honed under other circumstances, especially compared to their prior social circle? The answer is, no real chance at all. Moving away from home to DC and building one’s social network there is a much bigger problem for conservatives than is generally acknowledged. The big city brings with it a lot of attention, opportunities and new people. But, there is really no basis for imagining all this newness advances the cause of conservatism.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 23, 2014 @ 7:55 am

“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.’

This is the lamest, I am not responsible excuse that is being touted by everyone from Sec. Hillary Clinton to the janitor at the local elementary school. The information was out on the table and what wasn’t should been a call to question.

This entire discussion reads like a bad police report loaded with nothing to make the case based on bulk, manufacture and malicious intent in which the those guilty are claiming foul of ignorance. It did not wash with me then and certainly doesn’t now.

“If I only knew . . .” Poppycock, because you did know.

#4 Comment By grey enlightenment On June 23, 2014 @ 8:46 am

I guess I’m if the opinion big liberalism is the problem, not big government. The GOP controls the house, so it’s not like there is no leadership.

#5 Comment By Amos Newcombe On June 23, 2014 @ 8:47 am

You may want to devote some attention to the Wall Street wing of your party, who love big government, as long as they can control it.

#6 Comment By balconesfault On June 23, 2014 @ 10:09 am

The big dollar donors who fuel the GOP certainly love anti-government rhetoric which helps them sell tax cuts to the wealthy, battle back against the regulatory state, and gut the power of the labor movement.

Except for the most hardcore ideologues, however, they’re not so hot on gutting the big government which helps stabilize the marketplace so that their massive investment portfolios aren’t susceptible to too much risk the inevitable swings in the marketplace.

The Republican Party is, in the words of Chief Justice Roberts, ingratiated to those who see big government as a necessary tool to protect and expand their fortunes. Not that the Dems aren’t largely co-opted by the same dollars, of course – it’s just that the Dems also want the regulatory and welfare functions of government to help out the little guys too, and not just the oligarchs.

#7 Comment By David Naas On June 23, 2014 @ 11:06 am

Or perhaps the problem is not with maintaining conservative principles, but the recall of an old one — Power tends to corrupt.
With all the political melodrama today, both in fiction and “reality”, the most searing condemnation of the political process was in a forgotten Eddie Murphy movie, “The Distinguished Gentleman”, wherein the “honest” politicians prove to be crooks, and the crook discovers honesty.
What was it Mark Twain said, “There is no recognized American criminal class, with the exception of Congress.”
This has been going on for a very long time. Recall how Elbridge Gerry was at the beginning of the Republic, and what was named after him.

#8 Comment By Clint On June 23, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

Both parties are influenced by donor interests,which in turn,quite often, influence Big Government congressional votes on issues.

Real conservatives are tasked with maneuvering past these particular influences.

#9 Comment By Glaivester On June 23, 2014 @ 9:45 pm

Part of the problem was that McCarthy had no serious opposition. Amnesty is what killed Cantor. Labrador is pretty liberal on amnesty, which makes it hard for him to ride the Brat wave.

#10 Comment By Dennis Brislen On June 23, 2014 @ 9:45 pm

Genuine conservatives have only recently made a gradual comeback via the fine work of Ron Paul and an amalgam of libertarianism combined with paleoconservatism.

It has been a long tough road since 1952 when the GOP was captured and ever since controlled by the liberal eastern establishment banking and corporate interests. It was then that Henry Cabot Lodge and friends conspired to steal the nomination from Robert Taft.

Since, Goldwaters brief interregnum not withstanding, it has been a six decade endurance contest for the remnant few.

The numbers, though markedly improved, need another election cycle or two before the requisite power transfer can cycle into leadership roles.

After 60 years, the trendline is ours, we can wait it out another few years.

Robert A Taft. “Mr. Republican”. In your heart and mind, you know he was right.

#11 Comment By Aegis On June 24, 2014 @ 1:15 am

It seems to me that there is both a push factor and a pull factor involved here.

For the push factor, I would posit that most Republican members of Congress–even most conservative members of Congress–recognize that, at some point, the practical business of government means cutting deals with the opposition. Now, said members of Congress might not want to be the ones to actually cut said deals, but that understanding probably keeps them from backing real bomb-throwers for leadership.

For the pull factor, “conservative” in our government as currently operated is a moving target. Oftentimes it seems to signify nothing more than refusing to be seen to support cutting deals with the opposition. Since leadership’s job is, in no small part, to cut deals with the opposition, it seems a self-conscious conservative would have a hard time actually performing the role of leadership while holding off fire from his or her right flank.

#12 Comment By Ken T On June 24, 2014 @ 9:45 am

Occam’s Razor suggests that the reason conservatives can’t crack the leadership of the Republican Party is simply because the Republican Party is not, and has no intention of becoming, a conservative party. It is a party that exists for the sole purpose of serving the interests of Big Business and the extremely wealthy. Everything else is just red meat being thrown out to whatever segment of “the base” they are appealing to at that particular moment. They are not about to let anyone who actually believes any of it into a position of power.

#13 Comment By David Naas On June 24, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

Dennis Brislen — Thanks for the reminder of Robert A. Taft. We have not seen his ilk for a long time, and I fear we will never see it again. He was definitely NOT a ‘rush to judgment’ guy, nor did he think it was a politician’s job to be constantly pandering to the slobs. He was torpedoed for his integrity, and in the 21st Century, a politician must make pilgrimage to the brokers of money (Addison, Koch) and power (Limbaugh, Beck, etc.)or he won’t stand a chance.
But… just imagine… Bob Taft in the Senate today. Oh My!

#14 Comment By philadelphialawyer On June 24, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

“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.”

And yet you then go on to show that Gingrich, Armey and Delay all “cracked” into the leadership, rigged game or no.

“Even when conservatives win, however, they often lose.”

Meaning, I suppose, that once in leadership positions, conservatives are not quite as conservative as they were when they were back benchers.

Well, all I can say to that is welcome to real world! Actually governing, as opposed to letting off stink bombs, requires compromise. A congressional leader has to consider the opinions of both wings, including the moderate one, of his own party, the members of the other party, the other House, the presidential administration, the media, the public, the courts, key national interest and donor groups, State and local elected and party leaders, and so on. It is easy enough to make extreme proposals (liberal or conservative) or to refuse to go along with necessary compromises (such as the ones that keep the government operating and paying its debts and bills) when you represent only yourself, and whatever coalition of interest groups that got you elected to Congress in your district or State. It is not so easy when you have to consider all those other folks and their views.

And, with leadership comes responsibility. Again, lots of folks, liberal and conservative, have had fairly radical ideas, BEFORE becoming a SCOTUS Justice, or a governor, or a congressional leader or president. But once in high office, once the realization sets in that you now represent the entire country, that your vote and your decisions actually matter when it comes to governing that country, that millions of peoples’ fates are in your hands, and that history waits in judgment, you tend to moderate, you tend to wake up to institutional concerns, and you tend to not want to upset expectations that people have built their lives around, even if, given a tabula rasa, you would have done it all differently.

Ted Kennedy, by the way, was Majority Whip in the Senate for only two years, and later said he was happier as a committee chairman. He felt that he could get more done, more important legislation drafted, and passed, in that role than in leadership. Which makes me wonder just how important the entire issue is.

#15 Comment By Passing By On June 24, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

Mr. Antle finds the Congress’s elected Republican leadership perplexing.

Here’s a simple explanation … the voters more-or-less like the government we’ve got.

Yes, everybody theoretically favors cutting government spending. And everybody’s got some program that he/she dislikes. But somebody else likes that program, and would bitterly oppose cutting it. In aggregate, big majorities like the programs that cost big money; and each small program has a number of very-intense supporters.

Any member of Congress who wants to stay there has to play along with this silliness. So he (or she) talks about cutting spending; and denounces the programs that his constituency opposes; and makes gallant doomed stands. But there’s never majority support for significantly cutting any particular program, because the voters would punish whoever did it.

The Republican (and Democratic) leadership know all this. So they give their members what they really want — a forum to call for cuts, but no cuts. Because those members, in turn, give their voters what they really want — a call for cuts, but no cuts.

#16 Comment By Patrick On June 25, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

Ken T has got it right. I’d also add that Class of 2010 Tea Partiers are, say, twenty-something votes in a caucus of 232. And now they get one more vote, David Brat. So they can’t “crack” the leadership because they’re nowhere near a majority of the Republican Caucus, let alone a majority of the country’s voters.

#17 Comment By James Teele On June 26, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

Most Republicans are weak and don’t dare to be boldly conservative. For example, homosexual issues. Most Republicans have bowed to the awful homosexual lobby. If you give up on that issue, you are not a conservative. You are weak.

#18 Comment By Bob On June 26, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

McCarthy is a lot closer to Reagan than Labrador. And 72% from American Conservative Union certainly shows him to be a solid conservative. This article is poorly argued. You cannot just change the facts to make an argument. I expect Reagan would have agreed with McCarthy on immigration issue. Reagan was a great leader and often compromised for greater good of country. I doubt the Gipper would have been thrilled with Tea Party wing of GOP that this writer seems so impressed with.

#19 Comment By AM On June 26, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

There are a few simple reasons why the conservative (not those neocons) have had difficulties:

1) Focus has shifted too much towards moral subjects/topics/issues such as religious topics, abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights, etc.

2) For some reason, conservatives have become even more obedient to those neocons than the democrats ever were. And that’s very very disappointing as it forces us to get tangled in costly but non-beneficial foreign affairs for which we have to pay even more in the long-run.

3) Those moral issues are used too much to back up economic arguments. Then again, the economic arguments made by most GOP members these days aren’t necessarily conservative-based. Unfortunately, the more economic arguments become dependent on moral stuff, the less conservative and real economic arguments they become. Yes, a bit tough to understand, but just think about it.

4) Basically, we now have only one political party that runs and controls the govt, as there’s no difference between the Dems and GOP when it comes to real non-moral, non-virtual, non-propaganda-type, and non-neocon-media-fed issues that have to be addressed for the better of the USA and no other frickin’ country!

#20 Comment By Victor Tiffany On June 26, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

The word conservative used in this article should be “reactionary.” Pols seeking to roll back programs and shrink government are not conserving anything. Reactionaries want to reverse progress and turn back the clock.

The tea party folks are of this ilk. Speaker Boehner is conservative. Rep. Bachmann is a reactionary.

#21 Comment By Dennis Brislen On June 26, 2014 @ 6:12 pm

I suspect you are aware that you use the term “reactionary” as pejorative. As in attempting (gasp) to turn back progress.
Of course it should be noted that it was “reactionary” when we repealed Prohibition. This was a bad thing only to hardcore prohibitionists.
Repealing the 17th Amendment for example, though currently unlikely, would be a very conservative thing to do if, if conservatives really believe in smaller government and devolving power back to the lower units, away from the DC cesspool.
A new foreign policy based on avoiding “entangling alliances” and lowered de facto imperial desires would surely be considered “reactionary”, but welcome to increasing numbers of our citizenry.
So, please accept in good spirit my suggestion that “reactionary” need not be a bad thing

#22 Comment By Victor Tiffany On June 26, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

James Teele’s view of homosexuals is conservative, but in 100 years, his views will become reactionary. The difference is temporal.

The amendment movement to abolish corporate constructional rights is reactionary, aiming to reset the legal status of artificial entities 125 years.

Reactionaries who rail against big business in bed with big government should seriously consider the principle at stake (rights are for humans) and also Move to Amend with the OWS types focused on the corporate coup set into motion with the Citizens United v FEC decision.

Politics makes for strange bed fellows.

#23 Comment By stef On June 27, 2014 @ 11:50 am

@Victor Tiffany: Views like “the awful homosexual lobby” are why, outside of narrowly-gerrymandered rich or near-rich suburban enclaves, the GOP has such trouble with attaining national offices.

And many within the GOP would like to distance themselves from the social conservative wing, too.

#24 Comment By bjiski On June 30, 2014 @ 10:23 am

Because they are not actually conservative. They are radical bomb-throwing anarchists that want to shrink the government until it can be drowned in a bath tub, and then rely on the good will of billionaires to fulfill the role of government. Any true conservative knows that is a recipe for disaster.