Passed by traffic on the right

October 1, 2015

One of the Republican Party's one-time right-wing fanatics has been pushed out by today's really, really right-wing fanatics. Elizabeth Schulte tells how it happened.

WHEN JOHN Boehner announced his plan to resign as House Speaker in October, he described how moved he was to meet the Pope the day before. It must have made an impression, because a few days later, on CBS News' Face the Nation, he started talking about "false prophets."

Specifically, "Beware of false prophets," Boehner said, referring to the fanatical Republican right-wingers elected to Congress since 2010. Some of these GOP lawmakers were gathered at the Christian Right Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit a few blocks from the Capitol when news of Boehner's resignation was broadcast. The meeting erupted in cheers over the fall of a "moderate" like Boehner, who stands accused of betraying the right wing's agenda against "big government."

In many ways, the fight playing out between Boehner and the others sums up the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C., where the goalposts keep getting moved, but only in one direction. So now, a very, very conservative Republican is considered too "moderate" by the very, very, very, very conservative Republicans who want him out of the way.

House Speaker John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner (Gage Skidmore)

It takes a certain kind of hypocrisy for John Boehner to be frustrated about the grief he's gotten from the current Republican right. Twenty-five years ago, he was part of the Gang of Seven freshmen members of Congress--anti-abortion and anti-gay bigot Rick Santorum was another--who wrote the "Contract with America." That was the right-wing wish list for the so-called Republican Revolution led by Newt Gingrich, with its scorched-earth assault on social programs like welfare and food stamps.

The arrogant Gingrichites failed to accomplish a single one of their 10 Contract planks and ended up more unpopular than any other politicians in Washington after causing a government shutdown with their intransigence.

Bill Clinton won the political battle by criticizing the Republican revolutionaries for their intransigence. But the other side of the coin was that he continuously conceded ground to right-wing proposals from the likes of Boehner and Santorum, who had previously been seen as marginal crackpots.

This established a dynamic that remains familiar from the Obama years: The Republicans make a hard-line proposal, the Democrats offer to compromise; the Republicans counter with an even more extreme stance, the Democrats compromise some more; and so on and so on, until the final outcome is closer to where the Republicans started than where the Democrats did.

THESE DAYS, the Republican "insurgents" are gunning for Planned Parenthood and demanding bigger border fences.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has led the congressional charge to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which would affect millions of women, many of them poor and working class, who depend on the organization for basic health care services. Cruz and the Republican right insisted they were willing to cause a shutdown of the federal government to get their way.

After his proposal went down, Cruz railed on the Senate floor for an hour against his fellow Republican senators for surrendering, while hailing Democrats for being willing to "crawl on broken glass with a knife between their teeth" to fight for their policies.

As if.

Meanwhile, although he skipped a key vote that would have tied Planned Parenthood funding to the new budget, presidential hopeful Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was ready to call defunding Planned Parenthood "a human rights issue." As he told Fox News, "[J]ust because they haven't been born and don't have a birth certificate and haven't yet been named doesn't mean they don't have rights."

In the end, all their huff and puff didn't blow the house down this time either, after Boehner worked out a deal with the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take the issue of funding for Planned Parenthood out of the budget process, reign in the Tea Party and avert a government shutdown that would have made the Republicans more unpopular than they already are--just like each of the previous ones, dating back to the Bill Clinton era.

That was the cue for a fresh round of Boehner-bashing on the right. Rick Santorum expressed disappointment at his fellow Gang of Seven alum, telling the ultraconservative Breitbart "News" that it's "hard to organize a battle plan when your generals are saying no battle."

But just like Boehner and the Gingrichites in their time, Cruz and the other Tea Partiers of today aren't nearly the renegades they like to make themselves out to be.

Take a closer look at the "anti-establishment" Tea Partiers, for example, and you find a web of connections to longtime Republican players. Cruz, for example, claimed the Senate seat from Texas thanks to backing from another old Gingrichite, Dick Armey and his FreedomWorks organization.

Through this "grassroots organization," which its website says is dedicated to "lower taxes, less government and more freedom," Armey--a key player in the Republican Revolution who made a mint afterward as a consultant and lobbyist--gave Cruz, a humble Harvard University graduate who opposes federal programs like Medicaid, the leg up he needed to win in Texas.

Cruz is still getting plenty of support from FreedomWorks, even though Armey resigned in December 2012. Cruz came out well ahead in a straw poll of the Republican presidential candidates at the organization's "grassroots summit" in Orlando, Florida, in September--with 41 percent.

But that doesn't mean Cruz's right-wing zealotry has no effect--it amplifies and legitimizes ignorance and bigotry, and adds to the dynamic that pulls the Washington political system to the right, further out of touch with the views and beliefs of the population as a whole.

AS FOR the Democrats, they're content to let the Republicans fester in their right-wing filth because it already provides what will almost certainly be the most compelling reason to vote for a Democrat, whoever the candidate is, in 2016: However disappointing they might be, the Republicans will pick someone worse.

As a result, the discussion about whether to vote for candidate A versus candidate B is limited to the question of which is less worse. Without an independent left-wing alternative to the two parties, the Republicans and Democrats are free to move as far to the right as they wish.

In the end, the Republican presidential candidate will almost certainly not be a Cruz or a Santorum, but someone who fits the tastes of the Republican establishment and its donors--just like the Democratic candidate isn't likely to be Bernie Sanders, with his calls for a "political revolution," but someone from the mainstream of the party who is acceptable to the establishment- and corporate-friendly. The best bet is still Hillary Clinton.

By the time the primaries are over, there will be little room among Democrats for the novel idea that you should vote for something you support--the only thing you'll hear from party leaders and liberal organizations alike is why you have to vote against someone worse.

This translates into nothing but a terrible choice for the people who are expected to vote in elections--voting for someone whose policies you don't support.

Peter Edelman, who resigned from Bill Clinton's Department of Health and Human Services in protest of Clinton's appalling welfare reform law, explained this dynamic in 1997, describing how those who opposed Clinton's policies had to hold their tongues so as not to be responsible for Clinton losing, and Republican Bob Dole winning, in the presidential election the year before.

Edelman wrote in a commentary for Atlantic Monthly: "The story has never been fully told, because so many of those who would have shouted their opposition from the rooftops if a Republican president had done this were boxed in by their desire to see the president re-elected."

Edelman himself waited to publish his protest until after Clinton had won a second term.

In the end, Gingrich and the Republican Revolution were defeated--Gingrich had been forced out of Congress just four years after his 1994 triumph. But many of their policies won the day, because the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party pushed them through, in a (sometimes, though not always) kinder gentler form.

Working people in the U.S. shouldn't be constricted by the narrow, conservative boundaries set out by the Democratic and Republican parties. If they are, then U.S. "politics" moves further and further to the right, and never reflects what the majority of people actually think.

Further Reading

From the archives