The day before Congress broke for its August recess, on an afternoon when most of official Washington was tying up loose ends and racing to get out of town, Sen. Ted Cruz was setting the stage for the chaos that has consumed the nation’s capital in recent weeks.
The tall Tea Party-backed Texan – the state’s junior senator, with less than a year in office – worked his mischief in a windowless Capitol basement, where dozens of the most radical members of the House had gathered for a meeting of the Republican Study Committee. Once a marginal group known for elevating anti-government dogma above party loyalty, the RSC now counts among its members 174 of the 232 House Republicans.
“Father, we thank you,” says Rep. Michele Bachmann, opening the meeting. “You are the most important presence in this room.” In a pinstriped suit and yellow tie, Cruz sits at the center of a long conference table, flanked by RSC chair Steve Scalise and by the group’s most powerful member, former chair Jim Jordan of Ohio – who has routinely marshaled House rebels into battle against leadership. Jordan flashes the visiting senator a conspiratorial smile.
Soft-spoken but passionate, Cruz derides the work of House leadership, who this same week have scheduled a 40th, futile bill to roll back Obamacare. Instead of “symbolic statements” that “won’t become law,” Cruz says, the time has come to force a real fight – one that Republicans can “actually win.” It’s imperative to act now, Cruz warns, before the full benefits of Obamacare kick in and Americans get “hooked on the sugar, hooked on the subsidies.” His plan: Yoke the defunding of Obamacare to the must-pass budget bill the House will take up in September. The endgame? To force a government shutdown so painful and protracted that Barack Obama would have no choice but to surrender the crown jewel of his presidency. “As scary as a shutdown fight is,” Cruz insists, “if we don’t stand and defund Obamacare now, we never will.”
With those words, Cruz fired the first shot in a civil war that has cleaved Republicans in both chambers of Congress – a struggle that threatens the legitimacy of the Grand Old Party and the stability of the global economy. The fight has little to do with policy, or even ideology. It pits the party’s conservative establishment against an extremist insurgency in a battle over strategy, tactics and, ultimately, control of the party. Each side surveys the other with distrust, even contempt. The establishment believes the insurgents’ tactics are suicidal; the insurgents believe the establishment lacks the courage of its alleged convictions – while its own members are so convinced of their righteousness that they compare themselves to civil rights heroes like Rosa Parks. The establishment is backed by powerful business concerns with a vested interest in a functioning government. The insurgents are championed by wealthy ideologues who simply seek to tear down government. Both sides are steeled by millions in unregulated, untraceable “dark money.”
Having backed the GOP into a shutdown fight that congressional leaders never wanted, the insurgents are winning, and establishment leaders are running scared. America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and neither has anybody else around here,” says the House’s eldest statesman, 87-year-old John Dingell, who has represented Michigan since 1955. “It’s a grave misfortune for the country.”
When Republicans took control of the House in 2011 – fueled by the passion of the Tea Party and the virtually unlimited funding of donors like the Koch brothers – casual observers of American politics saw a House GOP united in the politics of the extreme right. But inside the Capitol, the story was more complicated. The leadership that the Tea Party had vaulted to power – Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor – were members of the GOP’s tainted old guard. Although divided by a generation and by an often fierce political rivalry, both Boehner and Cantor abetted the budget-busting “compassionate conservatism” of Karl Rove. Cantor rubber-stamped the “Bridge to Nowhere”; Boehner was a frequent flier on corporate jets. They teamed up to steer the passage of TARP in the face of fierce opposition from grassroots conservatives – a moment that Tea Party leaders cite as the birth of their insurgency.
Cantor, along with GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy, had actively recruited most of the 85 incoming freshmen. “They figured they could ride the Tea Party to a majority, and co-opt all of those people,” says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative think tank AEI. But from the start, leadership misjudged the new arrivals. Many had come to Washington to fight, not fall in line. “You show up in the fall,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a self-described Young Turk from Kansas, “and they say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, and everybody follow.’ And we said, ‘We’ve got a bunch of folks who don’t very much like the direction you’ve been wantin’ to go.'”
As leadership struggled to corral the class of 2010, a fellow congressman from Boehner’s home state of Ohio seized the advantage. Jordan, the RSC chair, recruited 78 freshmen into his fold. The RSC suddenly comprised a majority of the majority party, and Jordan found himself in a position of tremendous power and leverage, concepts that the wiry but broad-shouldered third-term congressman understood in his bones – he won two NCAA championships wrestling in the 134-pound class.
Boehner never knew what hit him. The speaker would soon suffer two stinging defeats at the hands of Jordan and the RSC. The first came during the 2011 debt-ceiling battle, when Boehner shut out his conference to negotiate with President Obama a $4 trillion “grand bargain” that combined modest tax increases with draconian spending cuts. By any objective standard of Washington deal making, Boehner had extracted extraordinary concessions from a sitting Democratic president.
Believing the old rules of Washington still applied, Boehner was confident that where he led, House Republicans would follow. But Jordan’s RSC simply wouldn’t abide any deal that raised taxes, and more than 170 members were united against the speaker. If Boehner pressed ahead, the Grand Bargain could only pass with a majority of Democratic votes – a scenario that Cantor feared would spark a mutiny. So he spiked Boehner’s deal. “We were preventing the speaker from making a bad mistake for himself and the rest of the leadership team,” a former leadership aide tells Rolling Stone.
Jordan’s intransigence forced Republican leaders and the president to settle on a smaller, cuts-only package that cost America its AAA credit rating and created the blunt across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. Jordan and more than 60 House radicals opposed even that final deal, but he still claimed victory: “Conservatives stood firm,” he gloated. “We [forced] Washington to begin addressing its spendingdriven debt crisis.”
Jordan beat Boehner again a year later during the fight over the expiring Bush tax cuts. In December 2012, the speaker introduced a compromise measure to preserve the Bush rates for incomes of less than $1 million. “We’re going to have the votes to pass,” Cantor declared. Grover Norquist – the keeper of the Republican Party’s anti-tax pledge – gave his blessing. But Jordan and his loyalists locked arms against it. “We’re the party that says you shouldn’t raise taxes,” Jordan responded. After Boehner couldn’t find the votes, he tearfully recited the serenity prayer before his conference, asking God’s strength to accept “the things I cannot change.”
With Boehner bowed, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell crafted a compromise that sailed through the Senate on a vote of 89 to 8 – an astonishing display of bipartisanship in the chamber of Congress that people used to think of as the broken one. In a public rebuke of his House’s right flank, Boehner brought the bill to the floor and joined a minority of Republicans and Nancy Pelosi’s majority bloc of Democrats in voting for it. The message was clear: The Capitol was uniting against the destructive House partisans. Jordan fumed at the passage of what he called a “classic Washington deal.”
Seeking to restore discipline to his House, Boehner tried to play the tough guy. He kicked four Tea Party troublemakers – including Huelskamp – off their favored committees. “They were fired because they were assholes,” says a source close to leadership. But once again, Boehner misread his opponents. Far from backing down, the backbenchers mounted a January coup that came close to toppling Boehner. Huelskamp cast his ballot for Jordan.
Chastened, the speaker was beginning to understand that he needed to stop feuding with his fellow Buckeye. Jordan – a politician with almost zero national profile – has emerged as the commander the House GOP’s opposition bloc, says Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning 33-year-old Republican from Michigan. “Jim Jordan is a strong leader,” Amash says. “Leadership understands that if his concerns are not addressed, there could be a large group – 40 to 50 – that doesn’t stick with leadership on big votes.”
Jordan eschews the spotlight, but he has strong allies. He sits on a shadow leadership team, dubbed the Jedi Council, that Boehner would deputize as a silent partner in shaping the House’s agenda. (Other members of the group are Paul Ryan, current RSC chair Scalise, and former chairs Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Tom Price of Georgia.) At the beginning of the new Congress, stinging from the loss of the tax battle, Jordan and the Jedi were eager to lead Republicans into a new confrontation with President Obama over the debt ceiling. They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: Brinksmanship works. But the first possible moment for such a fight would be in February, right in the middle of Obama’s re-election honeymoon. So the Jedi decided to hold their fire. At a House Republican strategy retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, in January, Boehner accepted their plan, along with a list of other strategic aims, known as the “Williamsburg Accord.”
The hard-liners were firmly in control. In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling – intending to give the president’s poll numbers three months to come back to earth. In March, Republicans rallied around a new, even more extreme version of the Ryan budget and forced Democrats in the Senate to produce a budget of their own for the first time in four years. The strategy was to showcase the parties’ contrasting visions – a Democratic budget that raised taxes and never got to balance versus a Republican budget that slashed safety-net programs to achieve balance in 10 years.
In the spring, the House forced the sequester – $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts triggered by the first debt-ceiling deal – to go into effect. The RSC was delighted; they’d feared leadership might lose their resolve on spending reductions that hit defense contractors and other financial backers of the GOP. “A lot of us were very concerned that leadership wouldn’t commit to locking in those cuts,” said current chairman Scalise, a gruff congressman from Louisiana.
But no one would see quite how radical the party had become until July, when after months of keeping the specifics under wraps, the House unveiled a slate of bills comprising the most reactionary major-party legislative program in a generation. It was calculated to block every facet of President Obama’s agenda, whether halting his executive orders to curb carbon pollution or stymieing spending on infrastructure and research intended to jump-start the economy. The bills also punished the GOP’s most hated agencies – slashing the IRS budget by a quarter, the EPA budget by one-third, and eliminating funding for public broadcasting. Even Appropriations chair Hal Rogers, an old-guard Republican who once brought so many earmarks home to his district in Kentucky that they dubbed him the “Prince of Pork,” conceded almost apologetically, “These are tough bills.”
The unified Republican strategy drove toward a new debt-ceiling standoff with the president. At Williamsburg, Republicans agreed to fight for spending cuts needed to put the country on a “10-year path to balance.” The promise sounded hardcore, and a few RSC members interpreted it to mean that Republicans would settle for no less than forcing Obama to implement the Ryan budget. “It’s the next logical step,” declared Huelskamp. In reality, the promise was strategically ambiguous – crafted to unite factions that did not actually see eye-to-eye – and designed by Boehner to give him room to make a deal that didn’t require a humiliating defeat of the president. As Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita, a member of the budget committee, explained to House conservatives, there was plenty of low-hanging fruit in the budget that could be traded for a short-to-medium-term increase in the debt ceiling – including $200 billion in future Social Security cuts President Obama asked for in his own budget. “That’s worth something in terms of a debt-ceiling increase,” Rokita said, ticking off other cuts that could be cobbled together to broker a decidedly ungrand bargain, including changes to farm policy and federal flood insurance.
The strategy – very explicitly – was not to turn the debt ceiling into a do-or-die standoff over Obamacare. And at least on the surface, House Republicans were united. There was one problem. The Jedi had bought themselves too much time. Originally, they’d expected the debt-ceiling fight to arrive in May. But with the economy improving, tax revenues spiked. Then mortgage giant Fannie Mae repaid $60 billion in bailout money. Treasury was flush. And it was now becoming clear that members who were promised a knock-down fight with the administration before the summer recess – the spoils from which they could tout to their constituents back home – weren’t going to get one.
The Young Turks began to grow restless.
On August 20th, nearly three weeks after Cruz first made his pitch to House conservatives, the senator took his campaign against Obamacare to the next level, joining his mentor – former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, now president of the Heritage Foundation – for the Dallas stop of DeMint’s nine-city “Defund Obamacare Town Hall Tour.” The original Tea Party uprising of 2009 took place in stuffy community centers and church basements. But tonight’s event – which packs a capacity crowd of 2,000 into the grand ballroom of a Hilton – feels less like a grassroots insurrection than a corporate convention. Jumbotron projection screens flank a large stage decorated with Texas and United States flags. On a riser at the back sits an array of camera-pleasing, demographically unrepresentative audience members – African-Americans, Latinos, young people.
Just a few years ago, the Heritage Foundation was a stodgy, deeply conservative think tank at the heart of establishment Washington, its main business offering right-wing-policy solutions, not driving government gridlock. In fact, the cornerstone of Obamacare – universal health care based on a mandate for individuals to buy insurance – was originally dreamed up by Heritage. Tonight, DeMint will denounce Obamacare as “the most destructive law ever imposed on the American people.”
If Cruz is the frontman of the defund fight, DeMint is the man behind the curtain, orchestrating the battle through a tight network of outside pressure groups under his sway, including Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth. In Congress, DeMint wasn’t much of a legislator – more like a Super PAC who happened to be a senator. Finding many of his Republican colleagues repulsively moderate, DeMint launched the Senate Conservatives Fund, which raised millions from the Tea Party’s grassroots to elect a new guard of anti-government hard-liners, including Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Cruz in Texas, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Mike Lee in Utah and Marco Rubio in Florida. SCF also backed a crop of fringe candidates – including Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Todd Akin in Missouri – who won primaries with Tea Party support, but whose oddball views on witchcraft and rape (respectively) sank their general-election prospects, keeping Democrats in control of those seats. Surprisingly, that suited DeMint just fine: He has said he’d rather have a Senate with “30 Marco Rubios than 60 Arlen Specters.”
DeMint holds the religious views of the extreme right, arguing that homosexuals and even sexually active unmarried women should be barred from jobs as teachers. But DeMint is best known as an inflexible economic conservative. Not to mention a first-class opportunist: Last December, he walked away from the Senate in the middle of his second term for a job that would give him even more power in his quest to revolutionize Republican politics.
DeMint quickly put his stamp on the organization. In the first high-profile study released under his tenure, Heritage warned that comprehensive immigration reform would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion. The math was wildly at odds with the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which calculated that reform would reduce the deficit. And it soon came to light that its top author once claimed to be able to rank the intelligence of different ethnic and racial groups – starting with Jews at the top and blacks at the bottom. “The scholarly quality of Heritage’s work was never up to academic standards,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former fellow at the think tank. “But there was some degree of quality control. That’s gone out the window under DeMint.”
With his defund-Obamacare road show, DeMint marshaled the Tea Party to his side – and against congressional leaders. An online petition at Dontfundit.com gathered nearly 2 million signatures. Heritage Action folded new recruits into its army of 5,600 trained “Sentinels” across Republican districts who parrot DeMint’s talking points. It’s all part of a sophisticated strategy – modeled, surprisingly, after the Obama campaigns – to turn up the heat on Washington lawmakers. The big idea, says Mike Needham, Heritage Action’s 31-year-old CEO, is to keep members of Congress “enveloped in our message” – both on the Hill, “where he’s hearing it from our six lobbyists,” and at home, “where he’s hearing it from a well-informed Sentinel who is a Tea Party leader.”
Once again, the GOP establishment had underestimated the strength of the party’s insurgent wing. Initially, old-guard Republicans seemed to believe they could derail Cruz with a few bons mots. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr excoriated Cruz’s plan as “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” Karl Rove warned that when Washington can’t keep the lights on, “it’s an iron law that Republicans get blamed.” Eric Cantor assured the National Review that the plan didn’t have traction in the House: “No one,” he said, “is advocating a government shutdown.”
But by the time Congress reconvened on the morning of September 10th, 80 radical members – including Jordan – had signed on to an open letter demanding that the budget bill “affirmatively de-fund” Obamacare. Worse, top voices in the Tea Party had turned against House leaders with the kind of venom usually reserved for the president: “If this thing is not defunded, it’s Boehnercare!” thundered Mark Levin, the right-wing radio host.
With the speaker in the cross hairs, it was Cantor who was chosen to announce the leadership’s new strategy to keep the lights on in Washington: He declared that within a week the House would vote to pass a single bill with two parts – one defunding Obamacare, the other funding the government. The bill would force the Senate to vote up or down on Obamacare, before then considering the budget. Standing ramrod-straight in a banker’s suit, Cantor flashed unusual vitriol: “It’s time for the Senate to stand up and tell their constituents where they stand on this atrocity of a law!”
Just a few years ago, a bill of this complexity would have passed before anyone outside the Capitol even understood what was in it. “It used to be a closed system,” says Matt Kibbe, CEO of FreedomWorks, whose Super PAC spent almost $20 million last election cycle backing Tea Party candidates. “You usually didn’t find out until after the vote.”
But no sooner had Cantor’s press conference wrapped than his clever strategy began to unravel.
That same morning, thousands of bused-in Tea Party activists from as far away as Tennessee, gathered in the withering heat of the Capitol’s West Lawn to demand that Congress “exempt America” from Obamacare. Some activists held signs that were shocking in the traditional manner of Tea Party hyperbole: “Defund O’Hitler Care!” Others targeted a new enemy: “Traitor Boehner Speaks Not for We the People.”
One by one, the leading lights of Tea Party Washington took the stage to denounce the Cantor Plan as an empty gesture – and worse. Standing tall in a white button-down and black ostrich-skin boots, Cruz blasted the House leadership for “procedural tricks” to let Harry Reid fund Obamacare. He was joined by fellow DeMint loyalists: Rand Paul demanded that House members with a backbone stand against the “invertebrate caucus.” Utah Sen. Mike Lee, whose cherubic face belies his extreme message, drew a line in the sand: “If you fund this law, you’re for it!”
Back inside the Capitol, the anti-Cantor Plan forces already had their hashtag. “I do not support the #hocuspocusplan,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash. First elected in 2010, Amash recently led the charge to defund the NSA’s surveillance of average Americans. He has a wide following on social media, which he uses to communicate directly with his constituents, explaining every vote he casts, in detail, on his Facebook page. Mostly, Amash votes no – including 136 times against the Republican Party line. Visiting the congressman that afternoon in his office – decorated with a framed poster of Ayn Rand – I ask him how he can so casually defy leadership. “Why be for leadership?” Amash asks. “It’s more popular in your district to be against leadership. Better just to vote your constituency.”
But for all his fiery rhetoric, Amash and his fellow insurgents know that keeping the grassroots on their side is as much a matter of survival as of principle. Thanks to the efforts of groups like DeMint’s to give it a top-down structure, the Tea Party is no longer a ragtag army. Regimented troops can now be marshaled to the barricades within minutes. The phones in Amash’s office have been ringing off the hook because the Senate Conservatives Fund has sent an e-mail blast instructing activists – including the signers of the Dontfundit.com petition – to bombard the phones of 29 of the most extreme House members to demand they oppose the Cantor Plan. The group even threatens to “recruit and fund a primary challenger” to House Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions if he aids leadership in bringing a vote to the floor. Sessions, who has served in the House since 1997, has a lifetime score of 97 percent from the American Conservatives Union. But SCF labels him a “Texas RINO” – Republican in Name Only – adding, “We can’t sit back and let wishy-washy Republicans like Pete Sessions destroy our freedoms.”
That evening on the House floor, McCarthy, the majority whip, is prowling for votes. The Cantor Plan is in full meltdown mode. But McCarthy is all smiles and buddy punches to the shoulders. Behind the scenes, Jordan has turned on leadership with familiar vigor and is whipping to hold his opposition bloc together. For Jordan and his outside allies, the task at hand is not even that difficult. A determined minority in the House today can command powers of obstruction far greater than even the filibuster in the Senate. The big, strategic votes in the House are party-line affairs. Leadership needs 218 supporters to even bring a vote to the floor. To block the Cantor Plan, Jordan and his outside allies need to pick off just 17 defections, or fewer than 10 percent of RSC members.
Outside Cantor’s Capitol suite, a sense of doom is setting in. The majority leader’s communications chief had insisted to Rolling Stone just days earlier that “this is not a hard place to govern.” Now he looks like he might literally start pulling out his hair. Cantor emerges from his office looking shellshocked. He flashes a campaign smile and is whisked away.
Less than 36 hours after it was announced, the Cantor Plan is dead. Though McCarthy’s team won’t share its vote count, the opposition pegs the “nay” block at 50 to 80 votes. “They weren’t close,” says Kentucky freshman Tom Massie with a smile. Why were so many members insistent on a do-or-die fight over Obamacare? “There’s a lack of trust between the conference and the leadership on this issue,” Massie says. “If our members genuinely believed that our leadership does want to defund Obamacare – and is willing to stake some political capital on that effort – then we’d entertain other ways of achieving that.”
Tom Cole, a member of the House leadership from Oklahoma, is furious at the newly elected senators and outside groups that forced this fight on the House: “Most of those guys never served over here and didn’t help create the Republican majority over here in the House – but they are certainly ready to lead it.” He’s even more angry at the stupidity of the strategy to threaten a government shutdown. “Look, I’m open to anything that would stop Obamacare. Kill it. Slow it down,” Cole says. “I just don’t want to put a gun to my own head and say, ‘Repeal it or I’m gonna shoot!’ That’s what the argument is about right now.”
But the following week, House leaders conceded to the demands of the defundistas. They put a continuing resolution vote on the floor that affirmatively defunded Obamacare. No tricks, no gimmicks. The GOP House members passed it with 230 votes – loading the gun.
Americans are used to rRepublican-led houses running on near-martial discipline. “A couple of years ago, the speaker and majority leader, they had all the power,” says Freedomworks’ Kibbe. “They don’t anymore.” The 50-year-old Tea Party leader does not look like your standard GOP operative. He wears hipster glasses and Diesel jeans and has pencil-thin sideburns that jut across his cheeks. The House today, he says with a wry smile, is “beautiful chaos.”
The old Republican command-and-control structure ran on cash. “It was a patronage system,” says a GOP aide. “Raise money for the [campaign] committee, and get put on a good [House] committee that lets you squeeze lobbyists for more money.” Members with the greatest talent at raising cash could hope to be plucked from the back bench and placed on a leadership track. The current House leaders are all products of that old machine. But the system that made these men powerful has been disrupted. “They don’t have the same levers that previous leaders had,” says a GOP strategist who will be involved in the 2014 midterms, “to intimidate or coerce the conference to move in step.”
The irony is that the Republican Party brought the state of affairs on itself.
Boehner gained the speaker’s gavel by agreeing to reforms that would weaken the power of the office. In the aftermath of Tom DeLay’s criminal indictment in 2005 for laundering corporate cash to Texas campaigns (his conviction was overturned this fall), Boehner campaigned for minority leader as a reformer. In 2010, Speaker Boehner put teeth to his promises, banning pork-barrel projects in appropriations bills. The reform was logically consistent for a party that had made “wasteful Washington spending” its bête noire. But the speaker himself has bemoaned the loss of leverage on must-pass legislation. “It’s made my job a lot more difficult,” Boehner has said. “I’ve got no grease.”
Back in 2010, old-school Republicans, hungry to return to power, cheered on the Tea Party insurgency. But what was once seen as an electoral blessing is now understood as a governing curse. “Most of these Tea Party folks think that government is obscenely out of control and that the only way to get it back in line is to draw a hard line,” says the GOP strategist. In the past, pressure from the business community could force House hard-liners to embrace ideologically unpalatable compromises like the TARP bailout. But the sway of K Street and the Chamber of Commerce is much diminished among these radicals. “In the past, Boehner could call a lobbyist and say, ‘I need you to lean on this member,'” says a fellow at a right-wing think tank who asked to remain anonymous. That kind of pressure is actually counterproductive with new arrivals who got elected in their primaries by denouncing lobbyists, business PACs and the D.C. establishment.
Partisan gerrymandering of 2012 locked in the Republican electoral gains of 2010. In redrawing congressional districts following the census, the GOP focused its efforts on protecting House incumbents – making their districts as red as possible. Last November, this redistricting effort produced a shocking subversion of representative democracy. In the popular vote, almost 1.4 million more Americans cast their votes for Democratic House candidates than voted for Republicans. But Republicans maintained a commanding majority in the House. “Gerrymandering saved them,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Today, the number of true swing districts in the House is vanishingly small. Only 17 Republicans won in districts that Barack Obama also carried. Meanwhile, the number of what elections-data savant Nate Silver calls “landslide districts” – districts that are 20-plus points more Republican than the nation at large – has swelled to 125, up from 92 just a decade ago.
Members from these über-safe districts don’t fear the challenge posed by a mainstream Democrat in the general election. They dread a well-funded primary opponent running to their right. “You’ve got very small numbers of people who vote in GOP primaries,” says Bartlett, who served in the Reagan administration. “It doesn’t take very many of these Tea Party people to show up to find out you’re on your ass.”
To keep this threat fresh in members’ minds, the Club for Growth recently launched a campaign called “Primary My Congressman!” that seeks to oust centrist Republicans from safe seats – and replace them with the hardest of the hardcore. “The Club for Growth is a cancer on the Republican Party,” said Steve LaTourette, a recently retired moderate House Republican from Ohio. “The only thing that grows when the Club for Growth gets involved is the number of Democrats in office.”
Republicans were also ecstatic when the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision undermined the system of regulated campaign finance. But this boon to the wealthy donor class has become the bane of those trying to forge party unity. Now donors can microtarget the faction of Republicanism that suits them best. “There’s a difference between rich Republicans used to working through K Street and the guy who just sold his plumbing business and happens to be a total libertarian winger,” says the think-tank fellow. The rise of outside money has made a mockery of what used to be the leadership’s biggest stick: “If leadership says, ‘We’re not going to fund you if you don’t vote with us,’ the members laugh,” the strategist says. “‘Keep your $10,000. I’m going to take $200,000 from an outside group.’ Or better yet, ‘I’m going to start my own Super PAC and send out e-mails about how John Boehner is standing in the way of our shared values.'”
In the last election, for instance, John Ramsey, a 21-year-old Ron Paul fan from Texas, used money he inherited from his grandparents to create the Liberty for All Super PAC. He funded the winning campaign of libertarian Kentucky freshman Massie with more than $629,000 in independent expenditures. As a result, Massie – a gregarious, MIT-educated 42-year-old – is a party of one, free to buck GOP leadership. Indeed, in his very first week in office, Massie joined in the coup effort that nearly stripped Boehner of his speakership.
The chaos now roiling the House is, in many ways, a battle between the two most powerful GOP party bosses – Karl Rove and Jim DeMint. For Rove, the activists of the Republican base have always been useful rubes. Republicans in the Rove school campaign on wedge issues that rally grassroots Republicans to the polls. But once these politicians get to Washington, they shift to fight for the interests of the party’s financial backers. In the emerging party of DeMint, however, the base that Rove scorns is everything. Only the daily pressure of grassroots activists, DeMint believes, can force Republicans to deliver in Washington on the smallgovernment promises they make to their constituents back home.
These two schools of governing can’t, ultimately, be reconciled. The DeMint school believes in combat, and in turning every possible government choke point into a high-stakes confrontation: You win by standing on principle, refusing to yield and letting the chips fall where they may. As Cruz put it to activists in Dallas, “If you have an impasse, one side or the other has to blink. How do we win? Don’t blink.“
“The elites have different agendas than the rank and file,” says Bartlett, the former Reagan official. “Your average Tea Party people may be content to have gridlock forever, but the money people – the corporations, the lobbyists – they need stuff.” And people in that camp have a lot riding on John Boehner and Eric Cantor.
Boehner and Cantor have learned to speak the language of the Tea Party – the majority leader more fluently than the speaker – but their real job is to keep the old Republican-patronage machine humming. In their political bloodlines and in their donor networks, both Boehner and Cantor are deeply connected to the politics of Rove. Boehner’s signature accomplishment was steering George W. Bush’s education initiative No Child Left Behind to passage – a law that Needham decries as “a gargantuan federalization of education” and “an anathema to conservatives.” For his part, Cantor was a key member of the 2003 Tom DeLay whip team that twisted arms in an infamous all-night session required to pass the deficit-financed Medicare prescription-drug plan, a Rove-driven gift to Big Pharma and the most sweeping expansion of the program since the days of Lyndon Johnson.
Boehner is renowned as a “Chamber of Commerce Republican” – and the campaign-finance data are unambiguous: In the 2012 election cycle, Boehner was the House’s top recipient of campaign cash from 34 different industries, from hedge funds and investment firms to coal mining, studentloan companies, hospitals, nursing homes and Big Tobacco. He was also the top recipient of campaign cash from lobbyists themselves, raking in $393,000 according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. In D.C., the speaker’s clubby network of staffers and lobbyists is known as “Boehnerland,” and its members include heavy hitters for Citigroup, UPS, Altria, AmEx, Akin Gump and the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “The Boehner folks barbecue on Sunday together, they go on vacations together, they name their kids after each other,” says the former leadership aide.
Although he’s positioned himself as a kindred spirit of House insurgents, and has even joined the RSC, Cantor is perhaps more deeply knitted into the Republican establishment than Boehner is. It was Cantor’s prodigious fundraising talents that elevated him to the fast track in 2003, when he became chief-deputy whip after just one term in Congress. Married to a former Goldman Sachs VP, he speaks the language of the investment class and is said to sell financiers on the “return on investment” of their political donations to the party. He’s been a fierce defender of the hedge-fund loophole that taxes the income of top investors at less than the rate of their secretaries – once arguing that taxing “carried interest” at normal rates would hurt “the average blue-jean-wearing American.” Over his career, he’s raised more than $2.4 million from the investment community.
The drama in the GOP House used to center around the palace intrigue between Cantor and Boehner. The rift was real – but exacerbated by hyperloyal staffers, in particular, Boehner’s former chief of staff, Barry Jackson, who has since decamped for K Street. By all accounts, the speaker and the majority leader now enjoy a smoother working relationship. “The guys agree on most policy,” says the former leadership aide. “I mean, there’s very little dividing line on that.” The two men even share the same benefactor: The Cantor-affiliated Super PAC YG Action Fund received $5 million from casinos magnate Sheldon Adelson last cycle – the same amount that the Boehner-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund got.
The budget fight produced a worst-case hybrid of Republican governance. The forces of DeMint succeeded in grinding the gears of Washington to a halt – provoking the first government shutdown in 17 years. But not before the forces of Rove had whittled a big, existential battle over the size of government down to a squabble over poll-tested tweaks to the president’s health care law.
In the end, Republicans did not shut down the government for a full repeal of Obamacare. Rather, they furloughed nearly 1 million federal employees, shuttered national parks and brought other core functions of government to a halt, because they couldn’t persuade Democrats to agree to a one-year delay in the mandate that Americans buy insurance – or face a $95 fine. Said New York Rep. Peter King, one of the few centrists left in the House GOP, “[This] whole thing has become madness.”
The madness has also ratcheted up the danger of a catastrophic federal default, looming on October 17th. Left to their own devices, House radicals won’t pull themselves back from this brink: “If we miss the deadline, it’s no big crisis,” RSC member John Fleming of Louisiana told Rolling Stone. “It can be used politically.” But if Boehner sidelines the Tea Party contingent and defuses the debt-ceiling crisis with the help of Nancy Pelosi and Democratic votes, it’s likely to be his last act as speaker.
Even the men who put this chaos in motion have admitted they don’t have a strategy for the endgame. They just wanted to put the ball in play. Speaking on September 19th, after the House had all but guaranteed a federal shutdown, Jordan invoked the coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots. “Even Belichick,” he said, “doesn’t script out the whole game.”
This story is from the October 24th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.