Last weekend the civil war in the House Republican Caucus over a new speaker managed to upstage Donald Trump to become the most embarrassing spectacle on the political right. The self-styled Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 Republican representatives of a libertarian bent, managed to run Speaker John Boehner out of town by threatening to withhold enough votes to deprive him of the job.
They threatened Kevin McCarthy, his second in command and heir apparent with the same treatment for the same reason – not hard right enough. Not willing to play hardball, shutdown the government, default on our debt, anything to defund Planned Parenthood, repeal Obamacare and balance the budget. Now! Even Paul Ryan, who many in the party believe to be the hope of Ayn Rand Republicanism, may not be pure enough for the Freedom Caucus.
You wouldn’t think a 20 percent minority of the Republican caucus, a 10% minority of the House, could wreak such havoc and grind the wheels of government to a halt for 100 percent of the American people, but many less extreme Republicans are terrified o crossing swords with the Freedom Caucus for fear they will be branded RINOs., Republicans in Name Only.
Since most districts have been so gerrymandered that only a Democrat or Republican can win, the only threat to reelection comes not from the general election against the other party. Thus, the political debate is no longer in the middle but at the Crazy-ville fringe, in the party primary where candidates try to out-conservative each other.
Of course, even in Crazy-ville a few dozen members on their own wouldn’t have much power, but the Freedom Caucus has friends in high places – like talk radio and PACs and “think tanks” like Freedomworks, a Koch brothers front that sets the sort of agenda Republican candidates and members are expected to embrace — or face the consequences.
What agenda? In the ideal libertarian world of Freedomworks, the budget would be balanced, the national debt reduced and taxes cut. How is that possible? By eliminating government programs. Social Security would be made optional. Obamacare would be eliminated and healthcare, including Medicare and Medicaid, returned to a free marketplace. So would schools. Public education would be made optional until phased out entirely. In short, no more entitlements. Fund your old age, your healthcare, your kid’s education by yourself or do without. Free at last!
The agenda also includes deregulating everything, especially oil and gas, getting rid of the meddling Federal Reserve and the Environmental Protection Agency, closing prisons, downsizing the military and avoiding foreign entanglements, crushing labor unions, eliminating the minimum wage, affirmative action, student loans and all other help for everyday, working people. In short, bring back the prelapsarian America of the Gilded Age.
This isn’t an America to everyone’s taste, but don’t tell that to the Freedom Caucus. Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia, the bible college graduate and economics professor who unseated Majority Leader Eric Cantor for being too liberal, too Wall Street, possibly too Jewish, says he isn’t far out. He is willing to back anyone for speaker who meets his list of non-negotiable demands, similar to those above. Why should the president be the only guy with a veto? Far from representing a small billionaire fringe of the country, Brat claims to represent the Voice of the American people. Of course, zealots often hear voices.
Brat is probably like many representatives from gerrymandered districts that are a safe 60% or 70% Republican. They grow up, go to school and live among like-minded people, they are members of like-minded clubs and churches, they speak to like-minded members of the local Rotary Club and raise funds from like-minded donors. Brat may have met relatively people who didn’t share his views. And those who do not are easy to dismiss as un-American. Another Republican named McCarthy perfected that technique.
On another weekend talk show, Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Freedom Caucus stalwart, went further than Brat in suggesting Boehner of Ohio, McCarthy of California and Ryan of Wisconsin might not be suitable for demographic reasons. They aren’t from the South, which is “the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” Farenthold also suggested Texas is the heart of the South because fully ten percent of Republican House members are Texans. So is Farenthold, so he may be biased. But he may be on to something. Over half of all Republican representatives are from the former Confederate states or from fellow-traveling points west.
People in Boston and New York, Cleveland and Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles and Oakland never much cared for it when the Cowboys began claiming they were America’s Team. And the crash-the-government crowd may find that their claim, that the Freedom Caucus is the Voice of America, produces a less than enthusiastic response. But only if Americans bother to tune in and discover what the snake oil being peddled by the Freedom Caucus really contains.