How refreshing it was yesterday – how bracing, like a waterfall swim – to hear John Boehner zap his right-wing zealots. It was the feel-good moment of the year. If it had been cinema, the audience would’ve cheered.
Finally, Republican leaders like Boehner are morphing into Howard Beale, the ticked-off Network anchorman who said he was mad as hell and wasn’t gonna take it anymore. Finally, they’re telling the litmus-test absolutists to go stuff themselves. Finally, the long-simmering GOP uncivil war has broken wide open.
A few hours before the House OK’d the bipartisan compromise budget that keeps the government open for the next two years – co-negotiated by Paul Ryan! with 73 percent of Republicans voting yes! – the House speaker unloaded on the conservative agitant groups that assailed the deal before it was even released. He was clearly referring to Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, and the Senate Conservatives Fund – groups that have long made his life miserable – when he complained that the purists are “misleading their followers, they’re pushing our members (too far rightward), in places where they don’t want to be, and frankly I think they’ve lost all credibility.”
And this: “It just comes to a point where some people step over the line. When you criticize something and you have no idea what you’re criticizing, it undermines your credibility.” He said the same kind of thing on Wednesday, albeit less pointed: “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous.”
Matt Hoskins, who heads the Senate Conservatives Fund (which goes after Republican incumbents who are deemed to be insufficiently right-wing), returned fire on Wednesday: “John Boehner has apparently decided to join Mitch McConnell in the war on conservatives. McConnell called us fringe traitors who should be locked in a bar and punched in the nose, and now Boehner is lashing out at us too. Conservatives everywhere need to understand that the party’s leadership has declared war on them. If they don’t fight back, they will always regret it. We’re going to hang together or hang separately.”
As you take a moment to ponder Hoskins’ war imagery (wow, is the GOP entertaining, or what?), you might be puzzled about his reference to McConnell. Here’s the back story: The Senate Republican leader is being challenged in a ’14 primary by a guy who’s even more conservative than he is – and Hoskins’ group is backing the challenger. McConnell is reportedly determined to destroy the group before it destroys the party.
His chief of staff recently groused that the insurgent outfit “has been wandering around the country destroying the Republican party like a drunk that tears up every bar they walk into.” And GOP leaders are backing their words with action; they’re drawing a line in the sand, essentially asking donors and consultants, “Are you with us – or are you with them?”
For instance, if a political firm does business with Hoskins, the firm will be blackballed by the party establishment. One advertising outfit, Jamestown Associates, is being shunned because it has produced TV ads against McConnell. In the words of a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the party arm that supports GOP incumbents), “We’re not going to do business with people who profit off of attacking Republicans. Purity for profit is a disease that threatens the Republican party.”
Meanwhile, earlier this week, the congressional Republican Study Committee fired its executive director, Paul Teller, because he was allegedly leaking RSC info to the outside conservative groups. The outside info groups retaliated by extolling Teller as a true conservative martyr and setting up a #TeamTeller hashtag on Twitter. One tea-partying Hill staffer reportedly laments: “This is clearly Paul Ryan and John Boehner cracking down on dissent in the House. It shows the hostility the establishment has to tea party-minded staffers.”
On second thought, maybe this isn’t a war at all. It’s more like a cafeteria food fight reminiscent of Animal House.
The thing is, Republican leaders like Boehner – and Ryan, who’s clearly willing to brave right-wing wrath – are trying to make a rational point. Politics is not just about winning primaries; it’s not just about marrying right-wing voters to the most primal conservative candidate. Politics is about winning general elections in swing states, and perhaps even winning a presidential election again (with a majority of the popular vote, something the GOP has failed to do in five of the last six). Politics is about running a government, not shutting it down. Politics requires a party to situate itself within striking distance of the sensible American center.
So the establishment has struck back. The question is whether the no-compromise zealots will smarten up or double down, but I think we already know the answer.
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