Deficiencies are cropping up in the American political system, which had been working so well up to now to unite the opposition and resistance from both left and right to protect and benefit the elite class. The Republicans are having difficulties with their right wing. The word “crisis” isn’t strong enough to describe the condition their party faces. Supposed friends attack each other like scorpions cramped up in a tiny terrarium. The venue is the House of Representatives, where Republicans are looking for a new speaker in the wake of a right-wing revolt and, of course, the primary arena dominated by a gigantic Donald Trump.* The Democrats are experiencing schadenfreude, but the Republican grousing is a manifestation of a deep-seated discontent over policy and the same goes for the Democrats as well.
John Boehner Awakens
From their perspective, the Republicans have made life difficult for Barack Obama with their knee-jerk negative response to everything he tries to accomplish, from health care reform to the economy and on to the nuclear agreement with Iran. But right-wing Republicans, usually referred to as the tea party movement, live in some parallel universe and claim that opposition to Obama doesn’t go far enough. While the Republicans have majorities in both the House and Senate, Obama continues to make policy. Obama’s health care law is flourishing and expanding. The ultras — meaning big business, lobbyists and the political elite — feel betrayed by the Republican establishment.
Deep resentment became visible against the backdrop of reality in which American voters elected Obama twice, despite the fact he wasn’t a “real” American and was possibly even a Muslim — which, according to a September CNN poll, 43 percent of Republicans still actually believe. Plain and simple: Unlike right-wing ideologues who demanded smaller government in the name of liberty and freedom, the establishment wanted a government that actually worked. These pragmatists had little desire for social conservatism with eternal bickering over same-sex marriage and abortion.
The anger in the House of Representatives boiled over; House Speaker John Boehner, seen by many conservatives as too willing to compromise, announced at the end of September that he would take his leave. The speaker, elected by all the congressional representatives, isn’t just anybody; he decides what bills will be voted on. He is third in line to succeed to the presidency after the president and vice president. On paper, Boehner was the most powerful Republican in Washington, the so-called leader of the opposition. But only on paper.
During a press conference, he said he had awakened that morning and as was his custom said his morning devotions, deciding that today would be the day he would tell the world about his decision to resign. At a meeting of the conservative Values Voter Summit taking place at the same time, the participants jumped excitedly out of their chairs when they heard the news from presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who said it was time for a new beginning.
Boehner didn’t have to go into detail about why he was resigning. After four years at the helm, he had had enough of the frustrating balancing act between the establishment Republicans and the right wing. Boehner is one of those people who like to enjoy a glass of red wine when the work has been done and is satisfied to call it a day. Obama praised him as a patriot who understood that “in governance, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want, but you have to work with people who you disagree with, sometimes strongly, in order to do the people’s business.”
But a minority of right-wingers would give Boehner no rest. Symptomatic was the controversy over the Export-Import Bank that grants loans in foreign transactions. The right wanted to abolish the bank in the name of free markets; the Chamber of Commerce would have been horrified.
The right threatens a government shutdown over the upcoming budget vote and raising of the debt limit. Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative magazine National Review, summed it up saying the right “often has seemed willing to burn the place down in the cause of symbolic purity.” Then, to calm the waters, added, “We’re still a long way from the sort of chaos that gripped the House in 1855, when the politics of slavery scrambled congressional politics such that it took months and more than 100 ballots to get a new speaker.”
A Right-Wing Circle
Another debacle followed Boehner’s surprise exit. Kevin McCarthy, a California congressman with such a conservative reputation that his selection was never in doubt, was being touted as Boehner’s successor. But at a closed door meeting McCarthy announced he didn’t want the job and that the party needed “a new face.” That sounded credible to virtually no one. McCarthy has been in Congress for only seven years and speculation began as to whether there might be another reason for his refusal. Did someone threaten to reveal some clandestine affair McCarthy may have had? So now the Republicans were still looking for anyone who could pull their car out of the proverbial muddy ditch.
One could read about “The End of the Republican Party!” in the comments section of The New York Times, complete with exclamation mark. The ploy of an alliance between the establishment and the far right was heading for a crisis. The leading party strategists and financial supporters called on the tea party movement and other like-minded organizations to be their allies and to start making noise and to set off diversionary smoke bombs in order to disguise the bitter reality that a majority of Americans were marching in a direction favored by Obama. The right-wing illusion would be propagated by a media machine led by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News that let faithful followers think they represented the “real America.”
The latest right-wing incarnation and Boehner’s nemesis is the Freedom Caucus, founded at the beginning of this year. It is a group of around 50 Republican representatives, large and disciplined enough to kill any Republican initiative favored by Democrats. The Freedom Caucus policy statement reads that it is “the voice of countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them. We support open, accountable and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety and prosperity of all Americans.” What they mean is radical budget cuts, lower taxes, more military spending, stricter immigration laws and a weakening of governmental agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency that aren’t favored by the “free market.” And we are cautioned that trade associations cannot count on government tax breaks.
Despite the Freedom Caucus commitment to “open government,” its membership list remains anonymous. What is known is that they are white males who hail from predominantly white, Republican residential areas. These representatives of the people have little to fear from their supporters.
Jeb Bush Slips Lower
In the good old days, the party leadership showed backbenchers how things ought to be. Otherwise, there were no campaign funds and backbenchers stayed backbenchers for life. Today, independent donors are the financiers and the party is no longer as important as it once was. The right-wing populism of the Freedom Caucus comes about because its members can speak from the heart when they claim citizens no longer feel Washington represents them.
At the beginning of the year it seemed probable that Jeb Bush, son of one president and brother of another, stood the best chance to be the Republican choice for the White House. His bankroll of millions — with prospects of even more — and his cadre of advisers from the party’s high nobility should have sufficed to scare off most rivals. But meantime, Bush is languishing. Party members like Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina, are running as the self-styled “non-politicians” versus the establishment. In the past, such candidates had to give it up in the end, but these days there’s a lot happening among the Republicans.
Among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton suffers from the discontent of some voters who aren’t thrilled at the prospect of another Clinton in the White House — not even if it’s America’s first female president. The enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders’ rants against “the billionaire class” stand in stark contrast to Clinton’s Wall Street cliques, but both candidates behave decidedly civilized toward one another as they await Joe Biden’s decision.**
*Editor’s note: Rep. Paul Ryan was elected speaker of the House in October.
**Editor’s note: Vice President Joe Biden announced in October that he will not run for president.