Can Conservative Revolutionaries Ever Become Congressional Leaders?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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My latest column for The Week was motivated by the realization that — after ousting Rep. Eric Cantor — conservatives failed to prevent Rep. Kevin McCarthy — who is arguably to Cantor’s left — from assuming Cantor’s post as majority leader.

This left me with a few questions:

What was the campaign to defeat Cantor even about? Was it merely about replacing one of the 435 House members? Or sending a message? Or was it about actually changing the party’s leadership? If it was the last, the follow-through left much to be desired.

A lot of people, including yours truly, viewed this as a rare opportunity to fill a leadership vacuum — an opportunity that conservatives failed to seize. And so, I questioned whether or not a revolutionary movement such as the tea party would ever be capable of pivoting and actually governing as conservative leaders.

Not everyone is as pessimistic. There is an argument that conservatives are merely biding their time — waiting for the moment when someone like Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling would be prepared to assume the speakership.

After all, Hensarling (as well as Paul Ryan) belong to an elite club of lawmakers who have the institutional connections to win a Leadership post — as well as the philosophical bonafides to have it be celebrated by the conservative movement. (RELATED: What If Jeb Hensarling Laid Down The Majority Leader Battle To Win The Speaker War?)

But I learned a long time ago you can tell a lot about somebody by who their heroes are, and as Joe Brettel noted, when one considers who Ryan and Hensarling most admire, it makes sense why they have (so far) focused more on policy expertise than climbing the slippery pole that might one day lead to the speakership:

Both started their career under the mentorship of a DC heavyweight from another generation, with Ryan learning from former Congressman and HHS Secretary Jack Kemp, and Hensarling being tutored from former Texas Senator and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm. Moreover, each man is in position to play a major role in the areas of policy they hold dear.

Who knows if Hensarling or Ryan will ever change their minds. So, for now, at least, the election of Majority Leader McCarthy feels like a missed opportunity for conservatives to elevate one of their own.

But maybe there is a silver lining? National Review’s Quin Hillyer, for example, is delighted that Steve Scalise will be House majority whip:

Scalise is a rare breed — a genial fighter. He will charge at his goals, and then not back off, like a bulldog. But, to borrow a line from Mike Huckabee, he knows how to be a conservative “without being mad about it.” How he performs as whip will depend partly on how well he hires and manages staff, and how well he smooths over any bitterness left over from his races for whip and for chairman of the Republican Study Committee. But nobody will outwork him, and nobody can claim anything other than that he is the most conservative member in the top three of House Republican leadership since Dick Armey. I’m predicting that his endeavors as whip will be successful — for the Republican party, for conservatives, and for the country.

If Hillyer is correct, Scalise might fit into the rubric of being a committed conservative who is also interested in, and capable of, actually governing. Rome wasn’t built in a day; maybe conservatives have something to celebrate after all…