The battle for the GOP
Posted on January 4, 2016
(Originally published on The Hill)
On the one hand, you have Paul Ryan and his vision of a government that works better to help people.
On the other hand, you have the Cliven Bundy militia people occupying a federal building out in Oregon waving “Don’t tread on me” flags and preaching government nihilism.
The most interesting battle of 2016 will be for the soul of the conservative movement.
Will it continue down the path of the absurd, as typified by those who find inspiration by the militia types, or will it check itself and seek to be a more responsible force for better government?
Ryan’s challenge as Speaker is first and foremost to not become another John Boehner, forced out of office by those who have a vested interest in making certain that honorable compromise is never achieved.
That means he has to win the argument that there is an essential role for government and that getting rid of it is not really an option.
That won’t be easy.
First, there is the now a probable chance that the Republican presidential nominee will be either Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.
You can imagine that Cruz would be a militia sympathizer. Too many in the Texas senator’s camp spout the same nonsense spoken by Bundy: that government is the enemy, that America needs a good insurrection every once in a while, that Second Amendment rights are absolute and that the federal government has no right to administer lands that are owned by the federal government.
The truth is that many conservatives and those who like to vote for conservatives have lost complete faith in the government. They don’t see what government gets them. They see their tax dollars being wasted taking care of poor people and illegal immigrants. They see the federal government coming in and telling their children what they should read and what they can eat at school. And they blame the government for the fact their wages have stagnated and for the financial crisis of 2007.
These conservatives, inspired by Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, particularly hate Barack Obama; they see him as an agent of change, change for the worst. Obama, with his funny name and unclear background (is he really an American?), represents all that is bad about government to these folks. Any Republican who cuts any deal with this president is equally culpable for the decline and fall of America.
Ryan represents the more pragmatic wing of the conservative movement.
He sees the federal government as too big and too expensive, but he knows that you can’t make progress in making it smaller by losing elections. The Wisconsin lawmaker also accepts the will of the people. Obama won two presidential elections fair and square, and Ryan has to deal with him to make government work.
Conservatives are bipolar when it comes to the role of the government. They want law and order and they want the feds to do their job in fighting our enemies abroad, whether that is the communists or the terrorists. But they also don’t want their tax dollars wasted, and they certainly don’t want the government telling them how to live their lives or run their businesses.
When the conservative movement becomes radicalized, it becomes a dark force in the American polity. It inspires militia types and vigilantes. It sees conspiracies behind every government action. It becomes reactionary.
The new Speaker has his hands full over the next year. He not only has to govern, he has to win the argument within his own movement.
He will try to convince them that they can trust limited government again. He will stress the limited part, but it necessarily includes the government part too.