One of the dark pleasures of the Trump era will be finding out day by day which high priests of conservatism, who were ready to guillotine Boehner for budgetary compromises with Obama, are themselves now prepared to cave to Trump’s government expansions in the name of keeping their jobs. Which “pure” limited-government advocates aren’t so pure once their careers as politicians are threatened? They’re facing the same hard lesson that Ted Cruz faced in the primaries: The party’s base, which screeched about liberty and statism for eight years under Obama, doesn’t much care about the size of government or really any aspect of conservatism apart from cultural conservatism. Cruz at least had a Senate seat to return to while he recuperated from having that truthbomb dropped on him. The House Freedom Caucus has to face it with their political lives on the line. One of their most outspoken members already faced it, in fact, and didn’t survive. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas voted against a farm bill because, he said, it was too lax on work requirements for food-stamp recipients. His constituents, many of whom are farmers, didn’t appreciate his principled stance when there was money on the table; they trounced him in the House primary by 13 points this summer.
Now here comes Trump talking up an infrastructure bill that could cost a trillion dollars. What’s a Freedom Caucuser to do? Cave, or behave as they would have under Obama by either ruling out such a gargantuan expenditure or voting for it only on the condition that it’s fully paid for with a trillion dollars of cuts to other federal spending? Do they, in other words, stand on principle and risk joining Huelskamp in retirement or do they do what they can to move Trump’s jobs agenda, whatever that might mean for the federal deficit? Take a guess:
Meadows is probably right that Republicans won’t fight a civil war at the dawn of Trump’s administration, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some fascinating ideological modulation to monitor. Consider Trump’s stated intention to seek a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure package soon after taking office. At a conservative forum one week after the election, Labrador told reporters that any such bill “has to be paid for” with spending cuts or revenues from elsewhere, “and if Trump doesn’t find a way to pay for it, the majority of us, if not all of us, are going to vote against it.” Otherwise, conservatives reasoned, it would be no different than the Obama stimulus package they once railed against. But their thinking has shifted in the weeks since. According to several members, there has been informal talk of accepting a bill that’s only 50 percent paid for, with the rest of the borrowing being offset down the road by “economic growth.” It’s an arrangement Republicans would never have endorsed under a President Hillary Clinton, and a slippery slope to go down with Trump…
Most Freedom Caucus members have little cash in their campaign accounts and are therefore susceptible to primary challenges from better-financed, establishment-backed candidates…
Though conservatives believe the president-elect to be an ally, they also recognize his fickle nature, which has been a source of frequent internal conversations. Even if they support Trump nine times of ten, voting against him once could trigger a tweetstorm or the threat of a visit to their district. It’s a chilling thought for members who know that the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the House GOP leadership already want them gone.
That’s a luscious irony in all this — the populist Trump could end up doing what the establishment couldn’t, muscling out the few fiscal conservatives in Congress who wanted to drain the Washington swamp before Trump did by shrinking the federal gravy train. But hey, you might say, that’s democracy. If red-state voters want a giant infrastructure bill, regardless of what that would mean for the national debt, then their representatives should vote to give them a giant infrastructure bill. That’s certainly one way to play it — if sentiment in your district shifts, you shift with it.
The other way to play it is to vote in accordance with the philosophy that got you elected in the first place and to accept the consequences of that in your next House race. Let the Freedom Caucus oppose the infrastructure bill, and if their constituents replace them with big spenders in 2018, so be it. In theory, the sort of non-careerist citizen-legislator idealized by the tea party should have no problem being thrown out of Washington and returning to the private sector as the price of voting his conscience. I’ve got a hunch, though, that we’re in for all sorts of too-cute rationalizations for why the Caucus needs to be “flexible” on legislation like this, starting with the idea that even an unreliable fiscal conservative willing to reluctantly vote for the occasional trillion-dollar spending package is preferable to a nationalist who’ll vote for every garbage bill Trump sends him. We must accept some crushing legislative defeats in the name of protecting our electability so that we can win a few minor victories in other areas. If I were Trump listening to nonsense like that, I’d turn around and tell them to vote yes on the bill even if none of it is paid for. Call their bluffs. They’ll cave.
Here’s another reason they’ll cave, and another tasty irony. Populist right-wing media figures like Hannity and Breitbart that were the Freedom Caucus’s best friends in pressuring Boehner to resist big government will soon be pressuring the Caucus on Trump’s behalf not to resist big government:
Since the election, numerous congressional Republicans have refused to publicly weigh in on any Trump proposal at odds with Republican orthodoxy, from his border wall to his massive infrastructure package. The most common reason, stated repeatedly but always privately: They’re afraid of being attacked by Breitbart or other big-name Trump supporters…
An editor at Breitbart, formerly run by senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon, said that fear is well-founded.
“If any politician in either party veers from what the voters clearly voted for in a landslide election … we stand at the ready to call them out on it and hold them accountable,” the person said.
Populist media worked hard to promote Paul Nehlen in his primary challenge to Paul Ryan with dismal results, but Ryan’s no ordinary congressman, of course. He’s the Speaker, he has a national profile, he has tons of fundraising options, and he’s well liked in his district. Not every Freedom Caucus member has the same luxuries. But then, as a WaPo reporter noted on Twitter this morning, if you’re afraid to vote the right way on key legislation because Sean Hannity might say something mean about you if you do, you probably shouldn’t be in Congress to begin with.
Here’s Mike Huckabee (who, in fairness, has never been thought of as a hardline fiscal conservative) selling some gigantic infrastructure spending last night by noting that it partly pays for itself by creating jobs. We’re all Keynesians now. Exit quotation from Chuck Schumer: “We think it should be large. He’s mentioned a trillion dollars. I told him that sounded good to me.”