Julian Zelizer: Forget talk that the House GOP is imploding; Republican conference has accomplished its key goals
He says the GOP has stymied Obama's agenda for years, and throttled expansion of government in most areas
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society” and co-editor of a new book, “Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America’s Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Many people think that the congressional Republicans are imploding. The surprising resignation of Speaker John Boehner has generated numerous predictions of a civil war unfolding in the GOP.
Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced Sunday that he would challenge Boehner’s presumed replacement, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. There is endless speculation that the GOP will fare poorly as tea party conservatives push the Republicans further and further to the right.
Writing in The New York Times, Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of one of the best books on moderates in the Republican Party, reminded readers that like the GOP after Barry Goldwater in 1964: “The present resurgence of anti-governing conservatism is also likely to end badly for Republicans.” The Republican caucus has become ungovernable and the party brand name is being destroyed.
Yet talk about a full-blown political crisis is overblown. While the resignation of Speaker Boehner might not be good for the future of governance in Washington, the House Republicans are doing just fine.
While the speaker resigned after becoming tired of having to deal with the tea party and finding himself unable to see any path forward on the federal budget without allying with Democrats, in the short term, the state of the House Republicans – from their own perspective – is actually pretty good.
House Republicans now enjoy their largest majority since the late 1920s with 247 seats (surpassing the post-WWII record of 246). Those numbers are not going to shrink very substantially in the near future as a result of Republican strength in the state government, combined with gerrymandered districts and high rates of incumbency.
The House of Representatives has become a fortress for conservatives regardless of who wins control of the White House and the Senate. Given the constitutional and political power of the House, Republicans can be relatively confident that they will retain the ability to tie up progress on major legislative issues in the months ahead. House Republicans will also be able to check Senate Democrats and the handful of moderate Republicans who are interested in making deals.
The proof of how effective House Republicans can be is evident from how they have blocked President Obama from making much progress on the legislative front since 2010.
While much has been said about the President’s success in recent months at using executive power to advance his interest on issues such as climate change, few of his major legislative initiatives have gone anywhere.
His biggest success was a free trade agreement which Republicans liked, and many Democrats did not. His ability to prevent a negative vote on an executive deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program is certainly a success, but it’s nothing like another New Deal.
On the big ticket items of the day – such as immigration reform – House Republicans have been able to tie up Capitol Hill so that nothing much happened. The constant attention to budget showdowns and the dysfunction of the government has worked just fine for conservatives who have little interest in seeing Washington work.
Given the momentum that President Obama and congressional Democrats felt in 2008 in the aftermath of the Bush presidency, this is a significant accomplishment.
There has also been a bit too much ink spilled over the ideological divisions within the GOP. While it is true that tea party Republicans are willing to take more drastic tactics than some in the leadership, the fact is that most of the Republican caucus is also pretty conservative.
As Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein traced in their book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” the entire party has shifted dramatically to the right. According to one recent study, about 90% of congressional Republicans could not be classified as moderates. There is no center anymore. And this has been going on since the 1970s.
Indeed, John Boehner is himself part of a generation of Republicans who entered office after the Reagan Revolution and helped make this process happen. As a member of the “Gang of Seven” who were elected to the House in 1991, he in fact advanced the use of dramatic, media choreographed tactics to achieve conservative goals.
After 2010, he tapped into the energy of the tea party caucus to build his majorities. The fact that he ended up tired of having to govern them doesn’t mean that there are such great splits within the party. Most Republicans are very conservative and the direction of their party suits them just fine. Speaker Boehner’s decision to leave does not really signal some great ideological split within the party.
The endless Benghazi hearings have been a prime example of how the House Republicans have descended into a morass of pointless investigations that lead nowhere. But in a candid moment, majority leader and candidate for speaker Kevin McCarthy admitted on MSNBC that the real purpose of the hearings was not to understand what happened but rather to cause political damage for one specific Democrat: presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”
McCarthy later tried to correct the damage his statement caused to the Benghazi committee, but the bottom line is that the use of the House’s investigative powers has served the GOP’s interests.
None of this is to say that the Republicans as a national party don’t face some pretty big problems, including the fact that the House Republicans do things that don’t always serve the interests of presidential candidates.
But the state of the congressional delegation is much stronger than it might seem. Even though many Republicans are publicly grumbling about Speaker Boehner, there are many who, at least privately, are pretty content with what happened during his speakership.
When the next session of Congress begins, and the House remains under the control of a sizable and conservative Republican caucus, even the tea party members won’t really be grumbling.