Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wrote in a New York Times op-ed Friday that in politics, like in football, victory “is more often a result of three yards and a cloud of dust” than a Hail Mary. Soon-to-depart Speaker of the House John Boehner echoed that sentiment yesterday when speaking about his impending resignation, emphasizing that the American system of government is not made for monumental, unilateral change. Unfortunately, the Speaker’s departure portends a lot of dust, but very little yardage—not just in Congress, but in the Republican Party’s quest to regain the White House.
In a way, Speaker Boehner’s resignation is altruistic—it will enable his party to avoid a government shutdown that House leadership correctly believes the GOP would be blamed for by the public. But the Speaker’s capitulation to the far-right Freedom Caucus’ demands will do little to remedy the GOP’s political and electoral woes—if anything, it will worsen them. His resignation reveals a great deal about the current state of the GOP—and how it hasn’t learned its lessons from 2012.
After Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential bid, the Republican National Committee undertook a party “autopsy” to understand the causes of the GOP’s loss and how the party could effectively address its electoral weaknesses. The resulting report, the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” included a plan for the party to reach out to demographics whose vote it typically loses, namely female, minority, and gay voters. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus stressed the need for the GOP to communicate its views more effectively and in a less strident manner. Republicans’ reaction to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision and Donald Trump’s self-serving summer of fun have done enough to damage that plan and the GOP’s prospects in 2016. The Freedom Caucus may have just completed the trifecta.
The Freedom Caucus is a group committed to “push[ing] the entire conference to the right.” It consists of about three dozen House members, overwhelmingly male, who are more conservative, have served fewer terms, and are from more solidly-Republican districts than the average Republican House member.
And it’s a big electoral problem for the GOP. The Freedom Caucus won’t be enfeebled by Boehner’s action—it will be enabled. Boehner’s choice has elevated the power and public notoriety of a far-right group whose social conservatism is increasingly at odds with the American public’s stances on social issues. His resignation amounts to a capitulation that signals to the Caucus that it can successfully hold the rest of the party and by default, the legislative branch hostage to its unrealistic goals. The GOP cannot afford for an extremely conservative, far-right, dysfunction-inducing group to become its most public face as the presidential race intensifies. A CNN/ORC poll recently reported that 71% of adults say it is more important to pass a budget that avoids a government shutdown than it is to defund Planned Parenthood, compared to 22% who think it is more important to defund Planned Parenthood. The Freedom Caucus also opposes gay marriage, despite the fact that a majority of the public now supports it, including 61% of Republicans under the age of 30. At the end of a summer in which Donald Trump has burned bridges to minority communities before the GOP was able to build them, the GOP can ill-afford to alienate another electoral group whose support it increasingly needs to win the White House. A poll in late July showed that 63% of registered voters oppose defunding Planned Parenthood, as do 68% of independents. Furthermore, 52% of women reported having positive feelings about Planned Parenthood, compared to only 27% with negative feelings. Notably, only 53% of Republicans supported defunding, compared to 34% against defunding. Perhaps most importantly, 58% of polled voters said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported funding Planned Parenthood over one who wanted to defund it. Only 26% said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate in favor of defunding.
Further empowering the Freedom Caucus in its quest to advance social conservatism and defund Planned Parenthood will have disastrous effects for the GOP. With only half-support for defunding among its own voters and the public solidly in favor of funding Planned Parenthood, tolerating the group and catering to far-right conservatives in the party in any way can only hurt Republicans with women and independents. In the short term, and looking ahead to 2016, the Caucus’ actions damage the GOP’s national image and run counter to public opinion, creating dangerous weaknesses with constituencies the GOP needs to win in 2016 in order to return to the White House. In the long-term, allowing the group to move the party to the right could not only ruin the GOP’s chance of reaching out to new voters, but could also move the party away from its current voters and toward a permanent decline. Speaker Boehner’s resignation has catered to the far-right and put the GOP on the path to another autopsy.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results. Speaker Boehner’s resignation portends a repetition of losing electoral tactics in 2016 for the GOP—with losing results.
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