The “Pragmatic” Shock Troops of Conservatism

Predictably enough, the big media narrative of 2014–The GOP Cleans Up Its Act–has now given way to descriptions of the freshly minted Republican Congress as a disciplined band of “pragmatists” ready to “get things done.” National Journal‘s Josh Kraushaar leads the way, hilariously treating the New Party Line as a correction of an outworn media narrative:

In Washington, narratives last long past their sell-by date. One of the most common tropes is that Republicans are controlled by the far-right wing of the party and have little ability to govern. That was certainly true for several years, in the wake of their party’s wipeouts in 2006 and 2008, along with the subsequent tea-party wave in 2010 that gave Republicans control of the House. Of the 66 Democratic seats that House Republicans picked up that year, more than half (36) were in solidly red districts John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election. Many of those newly elected members hailed from the GOP’s tea-party wing, reflecting their conservative constituencies. With little room to maneuver, House Speaker John Boehner had trouble managing a fractious caucus and found himself battling his own party as much as the Democrats. The 2013 government shutdown marked the party’s low point, with leadership at the mercy of several dozen uncompromising conservative backbenchers.

But many pundits are mistakenly looking to the past to determine the future of the new Republican-controlled Congress. With Republicans determined to improve their image in the run-up to a presidential election, and a crop of new, more-pragmatic members heading to Washington, all the signs suggest that the GOP will be eager to unite and advance a legislative agenda.

Having framed his argument, Kraushaar then gives us the familiar story of the new Republican “stars,” especially in the Senate, where the Great Big Grownups of the GOP snuffed out troublesome Tea Party challenges in the primaries. But if you read carefully, it’s obvious Kraushaar’s definition of “pragmatism” is simply “don’t cause trouble for the leadership.”

The biggest bellwethers in determining how unified the new Republican-controlled Senate will be are four newly elected conservative stalwarts: Sens.-elect Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and expected senator Dan Sullivan, who comfortably leads Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in Alaska. Three were endorsed by the antitax Club for Growth, while a fourth was a Sarah Palin favorite. But all of them had strong support from the establishment, too, and Republican leaders expect they will be team players in the new Senate.

Add North Carolina’s Thom Tillis—a former legislative leader who has expressed interest in chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee—and Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who called on the GOP to govern with “maturity” in a Sunday show appearance last week, to the mix of incoming senators who are eager to govern, not obstruct. In sum, most are unlikely to become Ted Cruz acolytes and cause problems for McConnell.

The planted axiom here, of course, is that Mitch McConnell, who organized the entire Republican Party into an remorseless cyborg programmed to obstruct Barack Obama, is actually a “pragmatist” who wants to “get things done,” as opposed to Cruz, who wants to throw a few more bombs.

Part of the definitional problem here is that McConnell in particular does not project any deeply held principles that transcend the exercise of pure power and the tending of the GOP’s money machine (which means, for example, obsessive attention to the needs of the fossil fuel industries). But it is difficult to think of a major issue on which he has conspicuously dissented from movement conservative orthodoxy. So his “discipline” represents an ideological discipline whether he talks about it that way or not. And his “pragmatic” foot soldiers are ideological shock troops so long as their idea of “getting things done” is simply to demand surrender from Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.