Finding a consensus conservative for the GOP

Marc A. Thiessen

By Marc A. Thiessen

Published Oct. 15, 2015

Finding a consensus conservative for the GOP

Many are bemoaning the "chaos" and "toxic crack-up" in the GOP after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California) withdrew his candidacy for speaker. Here is what would have been worse: keeping the same leadership team in place. Electing McCarthy - John Boehner's (Ohio) second-in-command - speaker would have been politically tone-deaf.

Have Republicans in Washington even noticed what's happening in the presidential election? Three outsiders who have never held elective office - Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina - have the support of more than half the electorate for the GOP nomination. Meanwhile, not a single elected official is in double digits in the Real Clear Politics average.

Why is that? Because the GOP voters are fed up, not just with President Obama and the Democrats but also with their own party. A Fox News poll found that 62 percent of Republicans feel "betrayed" by their party, and two-thirds believe the GOP leadership has not done anything to stop the Obama agenda. A recent Monmouth University poll found that, by a more-than-2-to-1 margin, Republican voters say the country needs a president "from outside government who can bring a new approach to Washington" rather than "someone with government experience who knows how to get things done."

In this atmosphere, promoting the next guy on the totem pole would have sent a message that the House GOP was completely out of touch. McCarthy would have been, in effect, a continuation of Boehner's speakership. And if you elect the same leadership team, you get the same results: a speaker who can't get Republicans to stick together on big votes, and thus has to rely on Democrats to get a deal. That produces more liberal outcomes - which, in turn, makes the GOP base even more frustrated and angry.

McCarthy's decision not to seek the speaker's job creates an opportunity to break this cycle by electing a consensus candidate supported by both the Freedom Caucus and the GOP rank and file who has a chance to actually unify Republicans, and hold together 218 votes - which would produce more conservative results.

The Freedom Caucus has done the GOP a big favor by shaking up the speaker's race. But now its members need to make a decision: Do they want to be a conservative minority that simply holds the GOP establishment's feet to the fire? Or do they aspire to become something bigger - a transformational majoritarian force that can have a lasting impact on the direction of our country?

Some people prefer to be in the minority. Being the brave remnant defending truth without compromise against overwhelming opposition has its attractions. The problem is that political remnants rarely succeed in sparking wholesale change. And if it is wholesale change the country needs, then the Freedom Caucus needs to start thinking and acting not like an oppositional minority, but as a majoritarian political movement.

To do that, the Freedom Caucus needs to use its newfound leverage wisely. It has enough votes to deny the speakership to the wrong candidate, but it does not have enough votes to elect its own candidate. That means the Freedom Caucus eventually is going to have to back a consensus candidate. So pick the most conservative candidate who can win the support of both conservatives and rank-and-file Republicans and reach an understanding with the next speaker on a bold but realistic conservative agenda. Then promise to fully back him or her in the fight to enact it.

In the next few months, the GOP will face difficult votes on raising the debt ceiling and funding the government. No speaker can get everything conservatives want so long as Obama still wields his veto pen and Senate Democrats still have a filibuster. But by working together, the Freedom Caucus and the next speaker can force Democrats to accept far more conservative outcomes than Boehner was able to achieve. And just as important, they can lay the groundwork for a positive, hopeful conservative agenda that the next Republican president can enact.

But that is not going to happen if the next speaker is asked to fly kamikaze missions with his own troops shooting from the ground. The members of the Freedom Caucus need to reach an understanding with whoever succeeds Boehner on achievable conservative goals. To do that, they need to decide whether they want to be disrupters or leaders - an oppositional minority within the GOP, or the catalyst for a new majority movement that changes the United States for the better.

The choice should be obvious.

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