You say you want a revolution? On Tuesday, conservatives will attempt what looks like yet another quixotic effort to topple Speaker John Boehner, and a question arises: Is it nobler to try and fail, or to observe the maxim: “When you strike at a king you must kill him.”
On one hand, history is replete with examples of coups failing before a revolution finally takes hold. On the other hand, engaging in yet another fool’s errand could make the revolutionaries appear disorganized and incompetent, ultimately serving to undermine future efforts.
(There is a notion that conservatives fit into one of two camps: You’re either an insurgent or part of the establishment. The assumption is that an insurgent will always favor revolution, and a member of the establishment will always favor order and risk aversion. But there is a third type of person, and that is one who believes in doing big, bold things, but wants to prudently pick his battles.)
So how do you win a revolution? It occurs to me that you need a few things: The right leader, the right timing, and luck. And the problem right now is that conservatives are missing the first (and arguably most important) ingredient. Newt Gingrich probably offers the best example for how it can be done.
So how did he do it? First, there was luck. Minority Whip Dick Cheney became Secretary of Defense, opening the door for Gingrich to make a play for the position. If that doesn’t happen, Cheney probably becomes Speaker, and (considering he had been Gerald Ford’s chief of staff) one assumes he would have been less a revolutionary figure than Gingrich. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of Gingrich having become minority whip. This meant he had the logistical infrastructure and organizational ability to count votes.
What is more, Gingrich began working with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) in 1979 as part of an effort to take the majority, and later took over GOPAC. Both organizations were focused on helping elect new Members to Congress. This means that newly-elected Republicans would be indebted (and thus loyal) to Gingrich. Aside from his brilliance as a visionary thinker, Gingrich spent years assiduously cultivating support and planning for a majority.
Now ask yourself this: Is there a serious conservative House Member today who does so many favors for Republican candidates that they will be loyal to him when they are elected? By definition, the people interested in accumulating power — and capable of pulling off this sort of logistical feat — tend to be establishment types. It’s tempting to say this is a Catch-22, but it doesn’t have to be this way. As Morton Blackwell says, “You owe it to your philosophy to study how to win.”
Nevertheless, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the ability to win a leadership position — and one’s commitment to ideological purity. Some of this is probably structural and self selecting, but I can’t help lamenting the fact that the most charismatic and inspirational conservatives also tend to be among the least organized. And, with all due respect to Ted Yoho and Louie Gohmert, I can’t imagine they’re going to come close to ousting Boehner.
To pull something like this off you’d probably need someone with the reputation of a Paul Ryan or Jeb Hensarling, combined with the fervor of a Gohmert.
Fundamentally, the problem is a lack of leadership in the conservative ranks. The people who have the courage and the ambition don’t have the respect and organizational ability — and the people with the respect and organizational ability don’t have the courage and ambition.
If conservatives really want to wrest the gavel from the establishment, it will require a compelling leader with a vision who carefully crafts a long-term plan to erode establishment support. It will take somebody who can build organizations, wield power and influence, and help elect new Members. And I just don’t see that in the near future.