Amidst all the other news flying at us from our phones, computers, and TV screens (Where is Trump golfing this week? Is Chelsea Clinton gearing up to run for office? Is Mark Zuckerberg gearing up to run for office? Russiagate!), it’s easy to forget that Paul Ryan is probably the most conservative Speaker of the House of Representatives this country has ever had. It’s not just him, either. The Congressional GOP, particularly in the House, is led by the “Freedom Caucus”—if you don’t recognize that name, that’s because they used to be called the Tea Party. This is likely the most conservative that Congress has ever been.
It’s no accident; the Congressional Republicans, particularly in the House, have been drifting to the right for years now, and the Freedom Caucus forced out the old Speaker, John Boehner, precisely because he was too moderate, in the “too willing to collaborate with Democrats to do inconsequential stuff like draft and pass legislation” kind of sense. They then hand-picked Paul Ryan to be his successor with the expectation that he’d avoid that kind of foolishness in the future. (House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was primaried out in 2014 for the same crime.)
Until now, Ryan has escaped similar criticism. Although he’s had to moderate as Speaker, he’s had the benefit of working for the vast majority of his tenure under a Democratic President, which, in turn, solidified GOP voters in the House into a (mostly) cohesive voting bloc. Between 2011 and 2014, for example, the House voted to repeal the ACA (in whole or in part) a total of 54 times. Ryan himself, as Chairman of the Budget Committee, always included language in his budgets to repeal the law. Not much ever came of this, of course: the Senate never even bothered with ACA repeal efforts during President Obama’s tenure.
However, the House GOP’s drift to the right hasn’t been complete. A number of moderates remain, some of whom currently serve districts that Hillary Clinton carried in November—a key predictor of electoral precariousness. As we saw in the case of the political trench warfare that led up to the AHCA’s failure, there is tremendous potential for disagreement within the party. FiveThirtyEight political writer Clare Malone, speaking on Slate’s “TrumpCast” podcast last week, noted that the Freedom Caucus, despite having risen to a position of power within the House’s hierarchy and having planted hardcore-conservative fellow traveler Paul Ryan in the office of Speaker, acts almost as a “party within the party” to the rest of the House GOP. According to a FiveThirtyEight study, the Freedom Caucus not only grades out as being ideologically very far to the right, but, perhaps more importantly, is particularly disposed to being “less establishment”—essentially, they hate cooperating, and often would rather break with party orthodoxy than compromise on perceived key issues.
During both the Obama administration and Trump’s brief time in office, this growing intraparty divide hadn’t been much of an issue for Ryan—until it came time to pull off the much-discussed “repeal and replace” of Obamacare, which, thankfully, was killed on March 24. The bill failed because it was bad, certainly, and because people all over the country made tremendous efforts to sway the votes of their representatives. But it also failed in part due to a growing revolutionary sentiment among House Republicans.
The House GOP, which had for years been working with the sole goal of opposing President Obama, no longer has the threat of veto hanging over it. In response, it’s fractured: while moderates have obviously begun to, well, moderate, the Freedom Caucus has gone in the opposite direction. Their reaction to the AHCA was telling. The bill, as initially presented, was a typically Paul Ryan-esque act of reckless budget slashing; for years, he’s been a fiscal conservative darling for exactly that kind of thing. And the Freedom Caucus hated it. Even after an emergency session that featured Freedom Caucus members essentially rewriting the AHCA to make it even more stringent, preliminary whip counts from the New York Times showed major opposition to the bill from the group.
As FiveThirtyEight points out, opposition to the AHCA within the House GOP didn’t break down neatly along a spectrum of less-to-more conservative. Plenty of moderate Republicans (after receiving thousands of phone calls from angry constituents) opposed the bill. Instead, as noted above, what makes the Freedom Caucus stand out from the rest of the “no” coalition is their utter unwillingness to compromise and their complete lack of fealty towards the concept of joint governance. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Freedom Caucus members who declined to support the AHCA did so essentially because they viewed the bill, even after being rewritten, as a compromise effort.
It appears that Freedom Caucus members, more powerful than ever before, have decided that the only way to implement their legislative vision (an entirely privatized, Ayn-Randian dys/utopia—a world without unions, taxes, or any semblance of government-funded public services) is all at once, everything else be damned. Paul Ryan, meanwhile, has somehow become the most responsible man in the room. This is, for reference, the same guy who once called the potential passage of the AHCA—a bill that would have stripped basic medical care from millions—something Ryan was quoted as saying he’d been dreaming about since he was “drinking out of a keg.” To the Freedom Caucus, though, it’s not enough to merely drive the first knife into the back of the lumbering, diseased welfare state, as Ryan intended to do; one must try to decapitate it.
So, the AHCA ended up being a nowhere bill. It was too hardline for the moderates, and too moderate for the hardliners, and too important for a White House that desperately wanted some kind of win, and all it did was piss everyone off. It’s important to note there that despite everything Trump has late-night rage-tweeted since the AHCA’s failure, the Freedom Caucus won this battle; they stuck Paul Ryan with the failure to repeal Obamacare. There’s going to be round after round of recrimination and pettiness, and it might have a major impact—the divisions forming right now could surface during the process of drafting other major bills. Perhaps more importantly for the GOP as a whole, it could have a major impact on the 2018 midterms, when Trump has called for primary challenges for a number of Freedom Caucus members, including the group’s leader, North Carolina representative Mark Meadows. Meadows, speaking after the bill’s withdrawal, claimed that repealing the ACA was still in the works, albeit in “private” talks, and reaffirmed the Freedom Caucus line that the half-measures taken by the AHCA will adversely impact their constituents.
This won’t end here. There are still Democrats, a lot of them, organizing away on the margins. There’s still the Senate, and an active FBI investigation into the campaign of the sitting President. 2018 and 2020 loom. In the shorter term, there are a lot of big-money projects to think about: President Trump has promised not only a wall, but massive tax reform and infrastructure bills as well, and sooner or later someone’s going to have to, you know, write an actual budget for the country. Just the basic business of governing, let alone actually dealing with such things, will require compromise, both by Paul Ryan and by the GOP as a whole.