Conservatives, Get Ready For Your Punishment

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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If you are a conservative unsatisfied with the current direction of the Republican Party, GOP leaders have two words for you: pound sand.

At least that’s how things look based on a few recent trends. Consider:

1. John Boehner is punishing Republicans who voted against him in the speaker’s race. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president of the United States, exhorted Americans to come together at the end of the Civil War “with malice toward none, charity for all.”

Screw that, says Boehner, coming off a landslide reelection as speaker of the House. Boehner’s office said there would be no retribution against any House Republicans who sided against him. “I just don’t think it’s necessary,” he told USA Today.

That turned out not to be true. Two Republicans — one who ran against Boehner and another who voted against him — were summarily tossed off the House Rules Committee. In fairness, Rules is the playground of majority party members most loyal to the speaker.

But the mini-revolt against Boehner was triggered in the first place by conservative distrust and several conservatives lost plum committee assignments before the beginning of the last Congress. We’ll see if the axe falls again.

2. John McCain is purging his tea party and conservative foes in the Arizona GOP. If you are a conservative critic of Arizona Sen. John McCain — that is, most of the Republican Party — you’d better not have an important job in the state party. McCain and his allies have been been bumping conservative foes from places of influence.

“Speaking for myself and every other Republican I know and every other Tea Party person I know, we’re sick to death of him, and we will move,” a Phoenix tea party activist told The Hill in September. But at the end of 2014, Politico reported McCain supporters were working to “[u]nseat conservative activists who hold obscure, but influential, local party offices.”

At the very least, the recent moves are a strong suggestion McCain will run again in 2016. There was some thought he might already be serving his last term, especially after he said he didn’t “want to be one of these old guys that should’ve shoved off.” Now all systems seem go for Team McCain.

McCain’s Senate predecessor was Barry Goldwater, who was also a onetime conservative firebrand who clashed with the right in his later years. But Goldwater left office the day after his 78th birthday. McCain is 78 now.

3. Conservative presidential candidates are sliding in recent Republican polls. At the end of the year, a CNN poll found Jeb Bush well ahead of the Republican field with 23 percent of the vote and Chris Christie in second place at 13 percent. The more conservative candidates — including Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio — were all in the single digits.

A Zogby poll released days earlier found Mitt Romney in first place, with Paul in second at 10 percent. At this early juncture, polls don’t measure much beyond name recognition. Usually, the conservatives are split. This time, the establishment could be split between Bush, Christie and Ryan. Finally, the establishment frontrunners have smaller leads than in the past.

Still, momentum for candidates like Paul, Rubio and Ted Cruz has slowed in recent weeks.

4. Boehner swears he is conservative. Not all news is bad for conservatives, however. John Boehner wants you to know he is a conservative, anti-establishment speaker. He cited figures saying he was the eighth most conservative member of Congress. This only shows the limitations of these ranking systems.

After all, George W. Bush pushed a lot of small-ball conservative initiatives and opposed a lot of liberal ones. But the end result of his presidency was a new entitlement, a bank bailout, rapid discretionary spending growth, No Child Left Behind, Sarbanes-Oxley, big deficits and a $1 trillion Wilsonian foreign policy.

But the fact that Boehner felt the need to defend his conservative credentials in a fairly combative speech may suggest his conservative critics are getting to him. Whether that leads him to fight President Obama harder remains to be seen.

5. What if Reagan-Bush was Reagan-Brooke? Former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Edward Brooke died this month at age 95. Now Scott Brown is the only living former GOP senator from the Bay State. Brooke was also the first black popularly elected senator, a first that receives less discussion than it might otherwise because of his party label.

What if Ronald Reagan had chosen Brooke as his running mate? Brooke wasn’t very conservative. But neither was Richard Schweiker, the senator Reagan did name as his vice presidential pick in 1976. When a top Reagan supporter in North Carolina wanted to make hay out of rumors that Gerald Ford was going to pick Brooke instead, in the hopes that Southern primary voters would react unfavorably to Brooke’s race, author Craig Shirley reported Reagan would have none of it.

Brooke did end up voting for what would become the Reagan tax cuts in 1978. And he endorsed Reagan for president in 1980. George H.W. Bush was more conservative than Brooke on an issue-by-issue basis, but he and his sons did more to move the party in a leftward direction. Brooke probably would never have run for president. Reagan-Brooke might not have been any worse.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.