By the time Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995, the House Republicans had spent sixty-two years in the minority, with the exception of two single-session majorities they gained after the 1946 and 1952 elections. The first of those exceptions was a fluke related to a contracting postwar economy, and President Truman won a surprising election in 1948 by dubbing the Republican majority the “Do-Nothing Congress” and running aggressively against them. The second exception came in the midst of the unpopular quagmire in Korea and with the help of Dwight Eisenhower’s unifying coattails. That Congress became famous for its witch-hunt against alleged Communists.
For the rest of the mid-20th Century, the Republicans were mostly in a deep minority in both chambers of Congress, although they did regain the Senate for the first six years of Reagan’s presidency. You can’t really understand the modern Republican Party or the rise of conservatism within their ranks without understanding that Republicans spent more than a half century having almost no say about how the federal government spent its money.
Eventually, this frustration and powerlessness would find a partner in Jim Crow Democrats who were frustrated with Supreme Court rulings and Civil Rights legislation that stripped them of their power to discriminate against and oppress their black populations and maintain one-party rule in the South.
When these two sets of grievances came together and combined with the anxieties of religious conservatives, the Reagan Revolution was born and set in motion a process by which conservatives would take over the Republican Party and eventually win control of Congress.
The key point is that the unifying spirit of the coalition was an opposition to the federal government’s power. Economic elites had gravitated to the Republican Party primarily out of a desire to avoid taxation, regulation, and pro-labor policies. Southern whites and religious conservatives wanted state control and local autonomy. And Republican lawmakers were sick and tired of having federal monies appropriated in a way that didn’t necessarily put their constituents first.
Seen in this light, conservatism was ill-suited to actually run the federal government and enforce or oversee its laws. As soon as Gingrich took the Speaker’s gavel, Congress immediately entered into a conflict with the Clinton administration that resulted in a government shutdown. Shutdown politics dominated the last six years of Barack Obama’s presidency. In between, the George W. Bush administration briefly lost its Senate majority to a defection when they couldn’t act with enough moderation.
This basic picture did not improve during Donald Trump’s first two years, as Congress failed in all its top priorities with the exception of the first tax cut in history to actually be a political liability for the party that enacted it. Even with total control of the White House, the House, and the Senate, the Republicans couldn’t pass normal budgets or push through the non-vital appropriations bills that fund the government.
Ordinarily, politicians want the responsibility of governing and are rewarded for gaining positions of influence, but this isn’t the case with conservatives. The Republicans have actually had trouble getting people to serve on the Appropriations committees despite the fact that appropriators are showered with lobbyist money which relieves them of a lot of the grunt work it normally takes to raise campaign cash. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rodney Freylinghuysen of New Jersey, decided to retire rather than face the electorate. Tom Rooney of Florida unexpectedly retired as well. Appropriators John Culberson of Texas and Kevin Yoder of Kansas were defeated.
This pattern repeated itself on several other influential committees. The chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, retired, as did senior member Ed Royce of California. Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Luke Messer of Indiana unsuccessfully sought higher office. The following members were defeated: Randy Hultgren of Illinois, Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania, Mia Love of Utah, Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, and Claudia Tenney of New York. Bruce Poliquin of Maine will probably fall victim to that state’s unique form of ranked-choice voting.
The powerful Ways and Means Committee saw many losses as well. Three members (Jim Renacci, Diane Black, and Kristi Noem) decided to quit Congress and run for office in their home states. Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas and David Reichert of Washington retired. Three other members were defeated. You might remember that the Republicans had difficulty convincing Paul Ryan to run for Speaker because he had just achieved his lifelong goal of winning the gavel on Ways and Means. It’s not normal for people to flee the tax-writing committee, but conservative voters don’t value this kind of power and the conservative movement doesn’t allow its lawmakers to take full advantage of their federal power. In fact, far from being revered or rewarded, Republicans are more apt to invite a primary challenge when they actually participate in running the government.
Some Republican committee chairs retired this year either because they could see the writing on the wall and anticipated that they’d be serving in the minority next year or because the party’s internal rules limit how long members can serve as chairmen and their time was up. Scandal even played a part. Still, the list of lost chairmen is telling: Rodney Freylinghuysen of New Jersey (Appropriations), Jeb Hensarling of Texas (Financial Services), Ed Royce of California (Foreign Affairs), Bob Goodlatte of Virginia (Judiciary), Lamar Smith of Texas (Science), Trey Gowdy of South Carolina (Oversight), Pete Sessions of Texas (Rules), and Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania (Transportation).
The truth is that most House Republicans will feel more comfortable in the next Congress because they will never be strong-armed to vote for federal spending on anything. They won’t have to decide how to divvy up money within our federal agencies and departments. They can just go back to opposing everything the federal government does, and that’s what conservatism is really all about. That’s how it evolved and developed in the 20th Century, and they don’t know how to actually govern nor do they really want to govern.
The exceptions to this rule are the people who actually step up to serve on the key committees or in the leadership, and those leaders never remain popular for long. Gingrich flamed out rather quickly, and Boehner and Cantor couldn’t survive, nor could Paul Ryan. The Republican members who walked the plank to keep the government open during Obama’s presidency found themselves facing primaries or a hostile base, and most either retired in frustration or were defeated in the 2018 midterms.
Unfortunately for the GOP, they have Donald Trump in the White House and the government still needs to be funded. When they oppose everything, they’ll eventually be opposing the administration’s ability to cut a deal to keep the government open.
For this reason, they won’t be truly happy until there is a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate. Only then can they focus entirely on what they’re actually good at, which is to make up conspiracy theories and scream bloody murder.
Trump is the perfectly logical expression and culmination of the conservative movement.