The recent battle between Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio) for House minority leader had all the low-stakes drama of two salutatorians vying for a student council treasurership. Jordan, the founder of the House Freedom Caucus, lost spectacularly on Wednesday to McCarthy, who had the backing of President Trump, in a 159-43 vote.
John Nance Garner, who served under Franklin Roosevelt after losing the Democratic presidential nomination, famously quipped that the vice presidency was "not worth a bucket of warm piss." How high a premium should anyone place on the opportunity to lead a party in the lower chamber under a president who, assuming he signs any hugely significant legislation in the next two years, is more likely to work with the opposition on a gigantic trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that contradicts all your stated principles than he is to work hard for your agenda?
In the days following the midterm election results, Jordan waged a very public campaign against McCarthy in which he argued that his party had lost the House because they had failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut welfare spending. Astonishingly, he really seems to believe it. This is a huge problem for the GOP. House and Senate candidates endorsed by the president won most of their races precisely because they de-emphasized the issues Jordan mentions in favor of talking about immigration and trade. This was true of first timers and Republican incumbents alike. There has never been a large natural constituency for Jordan's boutique political philosophy. The migrant caravan, which Trump seems to have forgotten about in the course of two weeks, turned out the Republican Party, not Heritage Foundation talking points.
Jordan's own Freedom Caucus insisted upon voting against the so-called American Health Care Act in 2017 on the grounds that it was not capricious and cruel enough. It was eventually withdrawn by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump's initial response was to call them defenders of Planned Parenthood on Twitter. He only changed his mind about a handful of caucus members — including Florida's probable governor-elect and former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) — after they criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Trump doesn't care about your nerd bullet lists; he just wants to win, guys, and he doesn't need you because you don't confirm Cabinet officials or treaties. Even Jordan himself seemed to acknowledge this, albeit half-consciously, in a recent appearance on Fox News. After listing off what he considered Trump's greatest accomplishments — pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, the summit with Kim Jong Un, the revised NAFTA agreement — he asked his host, "What was the House, what was the Congress' contribution to that?" I think you know the answer, congressman.
In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, former House Speaker John Boehner spoke about his experience with Freedom Caucus types: "They can't tell you what they're for. They can tell you everything they're against. They're anarchists. They want total chaos. Tear it all down and start over. That's where their mindset is." I'm not so sure this is true. What they support is clear enough. The problem is that the American people do not agree. A long if non-exhaustive list of issues about which the average American does not and will never care about would include balanced budgets; the deficit; repealing or reducing or otherwise fiddling with Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security; lower corporate taxes; "deregulation;" and the gold standard.
When is the Republican Party going to accept this? They have a good thing going with the caravan fear-mongering and the recent about-face on NAFTA. Maybe take up Lindsey Graham's old anti-flag burning crusade. No one, not even the billionaires and corporate boards who stand to benefit most from it, are interested in throwback Tea Party constitutionalism.
A GOP House where the fundamental division is between members who really care about these things and members who only pretend to do so is one that is setting itself up for failure. It could lose more seats in 2020 even if President Trump is re-elected.