Julian Zelizer: If elected speaker, Ryan will need to show he can control the caucus of 40 hard-line conservatives in the GOP conference
He says Ryan should use the full powers of the speaker's role to assert his authority
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.
If Paul Ryan was watching the Benghazi hearings, he got a good taste of what he is going to be in for if he is elected as speaker of the House.
The Republicans on the committee were out for some political blood. Although they didn’t really have much material to work with, scrambling to turn emails from Sidney Blumenthal into the new Watergate, that didn’t stop the Republicans on the committee. The new generation of Republicans are aggressive, vocal and refuse to back down from their positions.
And now some House Republicans are threatening that they won’t raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats in Congress and the White House agree to massive cuts in key social programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Even though Ryan has been able to obtain supermajority support from the House Freedom Caucus, there is little doubt that the party’s right wing will be causing problems in the near future.
It is extraordinarily difficult to stop a coalition that claims 40 members out of the GOP’s 247-member majority at a time when there is an absence of regular cooperation between Republicans and Democrats.
The Freedom Caucus isn’t shy about proclaiming its influence. “We want to make sure he understands that this is not about crowning a king,” warned Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho.
What options will be available for Ryan to change the dynamics that frustrated John Boehner? The easiest would be to concede by giving the Freedom Caucus what it wants even if the outcome is total gridlock on Capitol Hill. But given the need to reach agreement on certain basic issues such as raising the debt ceiling, this wouldn’t last long.
So how could the reign of the Freedom Caucus come to an end? What scenarios would result in their finally losing clout within the Republican conference?
Electoral disaster could be a recipe for their fall, but that would require Ryan to stand by and watch his own party fail. This would resemble something like the 1964 model of politics when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater’s shift to the right proved disastrous for the GOP.
After voters soundly rejected Goldwater, re-electing Lyndon Johnson by a huge landslide and voting for a Congress with massive Democratic majorities, many Republicans were not willing to stomach extreme conservatism for some time to come. Moderates regained their standing and for over a decade would play an important role in party decisions.
A more immediate and aggressive strategy would be for the next speaker to attempt to purge Freedom Caucus members. Republicans would in effect enter into a civil war.
Party leaders would need to mobilize their resources to support candidates in Freedom Caucus districts who are conservative enough to win but who would also be loyal to the leadership. The goal of Ryan would be to diminish the number of political bomb-throwers in the lower chamber and give them the resources needed to ward off any primary challenges.
The final way in which the Freedom Caucus could lose its power is if the speaker actually makes use of the power he has. Since the 1970s, reforms have centralized power in the hands of the speaker and given the leader a significant number of procedural and financial tools to impose discipline.
While Freedom Caucus members complain that Boehner was too rough with his members, others think he was too easy on them. Indeed, the reality is that he often placed them in positions of power, such as when he decided to appoint Trey Gowdy in 2014 to head a new panel to conduct an investigation into Benghazi.
The power that the speaker enjoys, including significant control over committee assignments, can be used to achieve discipline. While it is true that without budget earmarks, the speaker doesn’t have as many tools at his disposal, the shed is not empty. The next speaker would do well to reject the reforms being demanded by the Freedom Caucus that would structurally weaken the power of the speaker.
Over the past few decades, the speaker has also become the public face of the party and can command media attention.
Until his final months in power, Boehner was often hesitant to really go after those within his party who were causing trouble. The press will be essential if the party decides that its wants to try to contain the radicals of the right.
In addition, the speaker wields the threat of entering into bipartisan alliances with Democrats over issues such as the budget that can be used to pressure Freedom Caucus members into accepting compromises within their party.
Until any of these scenarios happen in the near future, the political environment won’t change on Capitol Hill. Just like Boehner, after a brief honeymoon period, Ryan could find himself drowned out by the voices of the Freedom Caucus.