If there was a moment that can be said to have touched off the turmoil now roiling the GOP, it occurred in December, 2012, at the Mekong Restaurant in Henrico County, Virginia. Over noodles, a local grassroots organizer named Kim Singhas turned to a fellow activist and whispered "He's the real deal." The reference was to the guy sitting across the table, Dave Brat, an economics professor at nearby Randolph-Macon College. They spent the rest of that lunch trying to persuade Brat to challenge House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the GOP primary the following June.
The rest is political history.
Massively under-funded but supported by a vast army of dedicated volunteers, Brat scored one of the most stunning upsets on record, beating the seven-term incumbent and presumed successor to John Boehner by more than eleven points.
But, of course, the remarkable events of June 10, 2014 did more than just disrupt the establishment’s planned House leadership succession -- far more than even the two of us, who helped run the Brat campaign, could have imagined. For it signaled the near-bottomless depth of anger and frustration among rank-and-file conservatives nationwide that is now so evident in the presidential race.
eb Bush’s poor showing, in particular, was foreshadowed by Cantor. Like the deposed House Majority Leader, the former Florida governor, by virtue of his standing as a senior member of the establishment and his vast war chest, was initially presumed by the elites in both the GOP and the media to be superbly positioned. Like Cantor, (who sent out no fewer than seventeen mailers and spent millions on TV ads misrepresenting his record), Bush presented himself as a rock solid conservative. And, like Cantor, he had no idea of the tsunami bearing down on him.
Even now, with all signs pointing to Paul Ryan assuming the Speakership, his ascension remains in question only because of the Freedom Caucus’s now-established capacity to disrupt business-as-usual. This is not chaos, it is democracy in action.
His failure has had little to do with his debate performances, or even his policies. The American people have simply caught on to the fact that the special interests with whom he is rightly identified run Washington. And they know that, campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, no establishment candidate will ever meaningfully disrupt the status quo.
ow clueless is Jeb Bush? He proudly appointed as his Virginia campaign chair --- Eric Cantor.
Even now, with the dominoes starting to fall, the GOP establishment is unwilling to connect the dots. This is perhaps most clear in their reaction to the House Freedom Caucus. To hear the establishment and its media allies tell it, the caucus is nothing short of disastrous, both for the party and the country. To Congressman Peter King, the Freedom Caucus is “trying to blackmail the party, hijack the Congress, and this has never happened before and it shouldn’t.”
The Wall Street Journal laments that these “refuseniks” (the Freedom Caucus) will cause the GOP Congress to “slip into chaos that cedes the agenda to Democrats or is unable to do even the most basic work of government. GOP approval ratings, already low, will sink further and let Democrats run against a reckless Congress.”
In fact, the "chaos" provoked by the Freedom Caucus is exactly what the Founders intended. What makes the members of the Freedom Caucus anomalous, and puts them at odds with so many of their GOP colleagues, is that that they are doing exactly what they promised their voters they would do on the campaign trail.
The Freedom Caucus has used their voting power to hold accountable a leadership long accustomed to wielding its power to circumvent House rules, picking and choosing the bills brought to the House Floor and preventing members from offering amendments not to their liking. Even now, with all signs pointing to Paul Ryan assuming the Speakership, his ascension remains in question only because of the Freedom Caucus’s now-established capacity to disrupt business-as-usual. This is not chaos, it is democracy in action. The opprobrium heaped upon the caucus – like that faced by the outsider presidential candidates dominating the polls -- is above all evidence of their responsiveness to voters’ disgust with the status quo, and a desperation for leadership committed to halting the country’s descent into financial ruin. Far from reckless, it is in the truest spirit of responsible governance.
Will there be serious consequences to this fight for the GOP’s soul?
Will the media continue to bemoan the eclipse of supposedly “responsible” figures like Cantor and Bush at the hands of “radicals,” and otherwise relentlessly paint the party as dysfunctional? Will the Obama Administration seek to use the fight to its own advantage? Will there be electoral casualties on both sides? Absolutely, on all counts. But what is afoot is something that had to happen in order to restore the brand of the Republican Party. As creative destruction is essential to a healthy economy -- otherwise we'd still be manufacturing buggy whips and watching silent films -- so it is also necessary in the political process. What has been happening in the GOP – that is what it looks like.