Rachael Bade of Politico has an excellent article on a topic I’ve been writing about now for more than half a decade, which is the true governing majority in the House of Representatives. Back before John Boehner lost his job as speaker, I could see that he had no future as the speaker if he insisted on simultaneously being the leader of the House Republican caucus. I encouraged him repeatedly to face reality and strike a deal with the Democrats to create a functional majority that reflected the actual group that was willing to pay our debts on time and keep the government operating by passing appropriations bills.
I, of course, knew that Boehner lacked the foresight, creativity, cunning, or independence of mind to follow my advice, but I also knew he was doomed if he did not. He tried to govern with the majority he had, and it wasn’t a Republican majority so the hardliners orchestrated his defenestration.
Paul Ryan finds himself in the same situation, although his first true tests haven’t occurred yet. The difference is that his centrists, who are his most crucial members for actually governing, are more organized and rebellious than they were under Boehner. They have already sunk a number of bills, blown up more than a couple of legislative plans, and they’re sick and tired of being forced to imperil their reelection by taking unnecessary votes that divide their constituents. They’re telling Ryan to quit holding votes as negotiating and messaging tools and start negotiating the budget deal and debt ceiling with the Democrats.
The centrists have always had more clout than they’ve been willing to use, but their influence is at a high point at the moment because they’re not just the folks who can give Ryan the votes he needs to avoid a government shutdown and a credit default, they’re also the folks most likely to lose in the midterms. In other words, their political interests have to be considered more now than ever, because Ryan can’t remain Speaker if they get wiped out.
The problem for Ryan is the same at is was for Boehner, but worse because Obama was a unifying force in his caucus and Trump divides them. Everything Trump is doing right now is aimed at appeasing the far right, especially the religious far right. This may be in part to retain good relations with them as he tries to push Attorney General Jeff Sessions aside, but it’s primarily about preventing his polling numbers from collapsing to a point where his impeachment becomes a real possibility. With Trump moving hard right, this provides Ryan with little room to pivot towards his most vulnerable members.
Yet, he will eventually have to pull a Boehner and go crawling to Pelosi for the votes he needs to govern. The centrists want him to get started now and to stop screwing around. But he’s not ready to heed their advice. As a result, the centrists are getting more organized and more willing to gum up the works.
I predicted that Ryan wouldn’t last through this phase, and we’re beginning to see why I made that prediction. He and McConnell are still engaged in the initial phase of their strategy which involves using the budget reconciliation process to avoid making any concessions to the Democrats on anything. The strategy has failed so far and will continue to fail, and it never could have avoided the reckoning that came after, which is the need to get the conservatives to help them govern by providing the votes for their own spending bills.
What will happen when Ryan can’t get the conservatives to pass a budget, pass appropriations, or raise the debt ceiling? We know what Boehner did and what happened to him in much easier circumstances.