How The Extremism Of The Freedom Caucus Could Open A Chasm In The GOP

Regular readers here might know that I don’t tend to go for hyperbole. But dating back to the Obama years, I have tended to refer to the House Freedom Caucus and their allies in the Republican Study Committee as the “lunatic caucus.” They are the ones who drove John Boehner crazy when he was Speaker and eventually engineered his ouster. That is in no way a suggestion of sympathy for Boehner, but simply a recognition of the deep fissures that developed among House Republicans.

With the failure of the bill to repeal Obamacare, it appears as though more Republicans are starting to catch on to the idea that the lunatic caucus is a problem for them. Jonathan Swan reported that “President Trump feels burned by the ultra conservative House Freedom Caucus and is ready to deal with Democrats” while Mike Allen says that “Top officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue tell me they don’t see how they can change the House Republican math that killed health reform.” Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), current chairman of the NRCC, recently said, “I think we need to start negotiating with Democrats instead of the Freedom Caucus. They don’t know how to get to yes.”

There seems to be a pretty big shift underway. Especially following the 2010 midterms when Republicans gained control of the House, the lunatic caucus was valuable to them as a means to enforce obstruction of Obama’s agenda. But at least some in the GOP seem ready to jettison them now.

While it’s probably not true that the House Freedom Caucus contributed all of the potential “no” votes for Obamacare repeal (moderates seem to have produced just as many), the entire effort to alter the bill in order to get it through the House was focused on meeting their demands. In other words, Republicans played this one to please the lunatics and came up short. Now they’re questioning whether or not to repeat that fatal flaw.  That is what’s driving them to consider working with Democrats. Take a look at what Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said about any future attempts to tackle health care: “It’s clear it needs to be done on a bipartisan basis.”

What is interesting to note about this is that getting to the place where Republicans talk about working on a bipartisan basis is something that was never possible during Obama’s tenure. It’s not – as some in the media continue to claim – because he didn’t try. A lot of liberals were mad at him specifically because he tried so hard. But pretty much throughout his two terms, Republican obstructionism held.

Over the eight years of Obama’s presidency, he tried several strategies that were designed to deal with Republican obstructionism. Immediately after the 2012 election, he attempted to develop what he called a “common sense caucus.” You might remember that some in the media didn’t understand the strategy and simply referred to it as a “charm offensive.” But Obama articulated it this way:

I do know that there are Republicans in Congress who privately, at least, say that they would rather close tax loopholes than let these cuts go through…So there is a caucus of common sense up on Capitol Hill. It’s just — it’s a silent group right now, and we want to make sure that their voices start getting heard.

In the coming days and in the coming weeks I’m going to keep on reaching out to them, both individually and as groups of senators or members of the House, and say to them, let’s fix this — not just for a month or two, but for years to come.

It is important to keep in mind that Obama never assumed that a common sense caucus would necessarily agree – but that they would at least be open to the idea of getting to “yes.”

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer was one of the few people in the media who grasped what the result would be.

[Obama’s] been using this, and I must say with great skill–-and ruthless skill and success–to fracture and basically shatter the Republican opposition… His objective from the very beginning was to break the will of the Republicans in the House, and to create an internal civil war.

What will be interesting to watch is whether or not control of all three branches of government will ignite the voices of Republicans who want to jettison the lunatics and go in search of a common sense caucus. The result would be an even deeper divide that can’t be kept under wraps anymore. Ultimately the choice for Republicans is clear…either continue to fail or risk exposing the divide.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.