The Freedom Caucus had an inauspicious beginning. As Ryan Lizza explained in his seminal piece on the group in 2015,
In Hershey, the new caucus struggled over a name for themselves. Mulvaney had been part of a similar group when he was in the South Carolina state senate. It was called the William Wallace Caucus, after the character from “Braveheart” who leads the Scots fighting for independence against the English. (“He’s the guy who gets hung, drawn, and quartered at the end of the movie,” Mulvaney said.) One of the working titles for the group was the Reasonable Nutjob Caucus. “We had twenty names, and all of them were terrible,” Mulvaney said. “None of us liked the Freedom Caucus, either, but it was so generic and so universally awful that we had no reason to be against it.”
Lizza ably documents the rise of the Freedom Caucus, from “a bunch of pissed-off guys” (in the words of Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a founding member), and “a member here and a member there who are off the reservation” (in the words of former Speaker John Boehner), to a group that dethroned the Speaker and is a force to be reckoned with in Washington. In fact, Mulvaney himself was elevated to Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump Administration, where he now gives press conferences explaining how Meals on Wheels “doesn’t work” and how people in states that drop essential health insurance benefits under Trumpcare should “change the state they live in”. (Maybe “Reasonable Nutjob Caucus” would have been a better name after all.)
Their latest success, of sorts, is torpedoing the Paul Ryan-backed AHCA, the legislation to partially repeal Obamacare and block-grant Medicare. The Caucus had successfully pulled Ryancare to the right (expediting the phaseout of the Medicaid Expansion, allowing states to add work requirements to Medicaid, etc.), but their final ultimatum to Paul Ryan, demanding repeal of the essential health benefits mandated by Obamacare, was too extreme for moderate Northeastern Republicans.
Reading through Lizza’s article, I was struck by how cynically perceptive the Caucus was about politics and power. That cynicism is central to recent trends in Republican politics, which show no signs of abating.
Contrary to their protestations, the Caucus’s members are decidedly not idealistic. They follow approval ratings and polls and flows of special interest money as closely as any other representatives do. And their number one goal is not to spread freedom across America, but to maintain (if not expand) their own power.
Read, for instance, the document that the Freedom Caucus presented Paul Ryan after Speaker Boehner’s resignation. It comprised 21 demands to which a new Speaker would need to acquiesce in order to maintain friendly relations with the Caucus. Most of the demands, as the NYT notes, “are difficult for anyone not versed in the arcana of Congress to understand” and “full of jargon and procedural terms”. In other words, we’re not exactly talking about the Declaration of Independence or Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. The demands were about power, not freedom, and their focus on procedural arcana stems from that fact. Essentially, the Freedom Caucus wanted the power to criticize the Speaker and to undermine his legislation, without suffering any consequences for these actions. (It’s a bit like Sarah Palin’s conception of the First Amendment, actually.) They also wanted greater representation on House Committees and greater control over the legislation/amendment process.
The name Freedom Caucus implies that the group is ideologically extreme. And, it is. But its real advances have been in the domain of procedural extremism. Here’s Lizza again, discussing Raul Labrador, a Freedom Caucus member from Idaho:
The innovation that Labrador and his colleagues brought to the Republican conference was a willingness to use tactics that Boehner and his allies saw as beyond the pale. “We don’t want a shutdown, we don’t want a default on the debt, but when the other side knows that you’re unwilling to do it you will always lose,” Labrador said. In his view, Boehner dangerously misunderstood Obama and had an outdated view of political combat in Washington. “You have somebody in the White House who plays hardball,” Labrador said. “He wants to fundamentally change America. And when you have a guy whose only job is to ‘govern,’ and doesn’t realize that the other guy is trying to fundamentally change America, you just don’t have an even match.”
The Freedom Caucus has no respect for the conventions of politics because the magnitude of the threat posed by President Obama, in their view, demanded a more hard-line, confrontational, and ends-justify-the-means approach. The genius of the Caucus was their ability to seize upon a deep hunger in the Republican base: not just to fight Obama’s new bills, but to reverse his old ones. Politicians seen as being insufficiently procedurally extreme, like John Boehner, were made miserable. Even their occasional allies were berated:
Although [Mulvaney] hadn’t voted for Boehner for Speaker in 2013, he supported him in 2015 because he believed there was no viable alternative. “I took no end of crap for it from the right,” Mulvaney said. “My office has never had the level of vitriol on any issue that even approached the vote for Speaker in January of 2015.”
It reminds me of Decius, the “intellectual for Trump” who published an astonishing essay that “likened the country to a hijacked airplane, and argued that voting for Trump was like charging the cockpit: the consequences were possibly dire, but the consequences of inaction were surely so.” If the Republicans wanted brave souls unafraid to charge the cockpit, their leadership would need to consist of men more like Mulvaney and Trump and less like Boehner and Cantor. And that is indeed what happened.
Labrador made the point crudely and cynically:
Unlike many Republicans, Labrador did not see the shutdown as a permanent stain on the Party. He grabbed one of two large poster-board polling charts leaning against his desk; it was titled “Before /After 2013 Shutdown” and showed the Republican Party’s approval ratings quickly recovering. “Within a couple of months, people forgot what happened,” he said. “So our favorables went back up, and our unfavorables went back down.” Boehner’s lesson was meant to make the rebellious members listen; instead, they learned that they didn’t need to.
Labrador then pointed to another chart, which showed that the G.O.P.’s favorable ratings this year dropped from forty-one per cent, in January, to thirty-two per cent, in July. “This is what happens when we do nothing,” he said. “This is the new G.O.P. majority in 2015, when we stand for nothing.” The problem, in his view, was that the Party was “governing,” he said, adding air quotes to the word. “If people just want to ‘govern,’ which means bringing more government, they’re always going to choose the Democrat.”
No matter how badly the Freedom Caucus misbehaves, no matter how many political norms they undo, and no matter how little they care about the hard work of “governing”, it all redounds to their own benefit, because, after a few months, the voters in the middle forget what happened, while the voters on the right remember their bravery in “charging the cockpit.”
Republican Representative Tom Cole was surprisingly prescient in predicting the consequences of this brand of politics.
Cole argued that if the rebels didn’t back off from their most radical demands they risked doing much broader damage to the Republican Party. “I guarantee you, you shut down the government, you default on the debt, you can kiss the Republican majority goodbye,” he said. “Or you nominate the wrong kind of Presidential candidate that simply appeals to Republicans. If you don’t get somebody to start changing the math among minorities and millennials, then we won’t have a President, and, over time, this majority itself will be in danger.”
We have such a president now. In fact, he is a Freedom Caucus president. He embodies all of the traits exhibited by the Caucus’s members: lack of loyalty to any Republican (something Paul Ryan has found out), pursuit of power above principle, procedural extremism, a desire to be seen doing “something”, instead of “nothing”, regardless of what “something” actually is, and, most importantly, a thrill for destruction and a deep cynicism about politics. The Freedom Caucus shut down the government, furloughed government workers, damaged the economy, hurt the Republican Party (at least temporarily), and harmed our reputation as a civilized country with a functional government. Their goal was to satisfy the demands of their almost feral base, who doesn’t give a shit about any of that. Trump has a similar strategy. He will break anything, including the Republican Party, if it excites the people who got him elected.
I’m heartened by the defeat of Ryancare in Congress. It’s a testament to united Democratic opposition, and to the intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism. But, it is also a testament to the dysfunction of the Republican Party, and the unique forces that operate on its most extreme members. For the Freedom Caucus, the failure of Ryancare was not a personal failure. It was a failure of Paul Ryan. He simply wasn’t willing to take the radical steps needed to repeal Obamacare “root and branch”, just as Boehner wasn’t willing to shut down the government in 2013 to achieve the same goal. Both the Freedom Caucus and Trump thrive when the Republican base is disappointed in their own leaders: it gives them a ready source of scapegoats for each new failure. Lizza writes that “The “biggest factor” in [Dave Brat’s] victory over Cantor…was expressed by a recent poll by Fox News that found that sixty per cent of Republican primary voters “feel betrayed” by Republican politicians.” If Paul Ryan is the latest betrayer, then I expect that the knives, from Trump and Bannon and Mulvaney and Labrador, will come out for him too. The altar of Republican purity will demand more sacrifices.
But the defeat of Ryancare does not necessarily correspond to a victory for Obamacare. Trump has a plan B, which is to sabotage it without passing a “repeal and replace” bill:
“I’ve been saying for the last year and a half that the best thing we can do, politically speaking, is let Obamacare explode. It’s exploding right now.”
So, the Freedom Caucus has gone from government shutdown to healthcare shutdown. They’ve gone from a person here or there “off the reservation” to running the reservation. And they’ve gone from rushing the cockpit to save the country from terrorism to being the terrorists themselves.