Anyone paying attention to politics over the past few years could tell that House Speaker John Boehner had to spend most of his time and energy barely keeping the peace in his party. But he and other Republican leaders contributed to the root cause of his difficulty — which is that conservatives don’t know what they want.
During the long period of Republican presidential ascendancy, congressional Republicans, who were usually in the minority, got used to taking orders from the White House. In the past 35 years, there was only a six-year period during which they set their own agenda. In 1994, with Bill Clinton in office and Newt Gingrich in effective leadership of House Republicans, they drew up a “Contract with America” featuring tax relief, term limits, welfare reform and other proposals.
They kept fighting for this basic agenda. Clinton signed variants of some of it; George W. Bush campaigned on unfinished parts of it and enacted more of it. But Bush also added his own initiatives, and congressional Republicans largely went back to follow-the-president mode.
They were on their own again after Bush. But during Barack Obama’s presidency, they mostly haven’t emulated their Gingrich-era predecessors. They haven’t advanced a broad set of policies that they want to see take effect. With Boehner as their leader, House Republicans drew up a “pledge to America” in 2010 but deliberately made it lower-profile than the 1994 contract, and never used it to guide floor action. The one policy on which they led was overhauling Medicare, where Representative Paul Ryan got congressional Republicans to support reform and then the party’s presidential candidates followed. But in 2014, Republican leaders discouraged candidates from running on ideas of their own and instead urged them to campaign against Obama’s.