There has been a lot of negativity expressed by many hard-line conservatives over the events of the last week. The Ryan-Murray budget compromise was hard enough to swallow, but House Speaker John Boehner really upset segments of the base when he blasted outside conservative groups. Calling them the “groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it,” Boehner originally accused these groups of “using our members and … using the American people for their own goals.”
The next day he went further, saying that “…when groups come out and criticize something they’ve never seen, you begin to wonder just how credible those actions are.” He said that the groups, like Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and Heritage Action, had “lost all credibility” because they were “misleading their followers… they’re pushing our members in places they don’t want to be.”
The truth is that the deal Ryan came up with itself is hardly the type of budget conservatives have been used to getting with the former vice presidential candidate and House Budget Committee chairman. Ryan established his conservative bona fides five and a half years ago, when he introduced the Roadmap for America’s Future Act of 2008. This was the original “Ryan Budget” and it got nowhere in the Pelosi-run House of Representatives. One year later he wrote the GOP alternative budget, which included things that appealed to conservatives, such as allowing people earning below a certain amount to pay a flat tax rate and opt out of deductions, capping spending and reworking Medicare to a voucher-style program.
Ryan-Murray, however, is different. While it is being sold as a plan that cuts the deficit without raising taxes, opponents such as The Federalist’s Sean Davis are quick to point out that it does raise revenue by adding “user fees” — which in other instances, like the federal gasoline tax, are simply described as a tax. Ryan’s staff tried to explain that it isn’t really a tax at all, rather, a payment for using a service (in this case, the TSA). But people such as Ramesh Ponnuru wrote of the explanation: “That doesn’t read to me like an explanation of why the fee increase isn’t a tax hike on airline tickets. It reads to me like an attempt to justify a tax hike on airline tickets.”
Ryan, for his part, didn’t sell his deal as a great one. “Look, as a conservative, I deal with the situation as it exists. I passed three budgets in a row that reflect my priorities and my principles,” and none of the budgets passed the Senate, Ryan said. “We’re in divided government…So I’m not going to go a mile in the direction I want to go to, but I will take a few steps in the right direction.”
What bothered conservatives most is that John Boehner chose to make this deal the point where he takes on the outside groups. More than that, he made it seem as though there was no legitimate criticism of the deal — a fact even conceded by Ryan. In his daily newsletter “The Transom,” Ben Domenech wrote: “What leadership should say to their conservative members and to the base is something along these lines: ‘Look, this is a compromise, a politically calculated one. We’re not going to question your motives or your intelligence. In terms of the principles here, you may even be right. All we ask is that for anyone voting no on this, call the deal a disappointment, but not a sellout. We’re not selling you out; we’re doing what we have to for political expediency. If it gets branded as a sellout then the deal can fail, and the president gets to shut down the government in January with glee. Two weeks later he cuts a deal that he could’ve cut earlier and uses that to chide us all in the SOTU, hoping for a change in his political fortunes.
“Leadership needs to do that to frame this as a political victory rather than a substantive victory. Branding it as a ‘good deal’ on merits is completely silly and every fiscal conservative knows they’re being lied to… Instead, talk to the base before you announce the deal. Acknowledge the deal’s failings, but stress that it removes the shutdown card from Obama’s options, and that they have to do it because of the handful of sequester-haters in their own caucus who would fight strategy.”
While Domenech is absolutely right here, there is another, more important point on which Boehner is right. The outside groups, Ryan on Sunday described very politically as “very important elements of our conservative family” and are “indispensable to keeping taxpayer interests accounted for and keeping people accountable.” However, he said, “we sometimes have differences of opinions on tactics, [but] we all believe the same thing with respect to our ultimate goal.”
However, in the last few years, the outside groups have become more and more powerful, as they have risen to the forefront of the conservative movement. When the Republicans were routed in 2008, they tapped into the anti-establishment sentiment to successfully push the GOP back into power in the house. But once the GOP took control, the only way for these groups to exist, and effectively raise the enormous sums of money to sustain them, is to fight against the “establishment” — not unlike the way they did in 2010. They settled on the “RINO” (Republican in name only) house leadership, insisting that they weren’t ideologically pure enough.
Here’s the problem. Four of the groups that opposed the Ryan-Murray deal that also engaged in public fights with Speaker Boehner over it have a scoring process, where they assign a score or rating as to how ideologically in step with their view of conservative policy certain politicians are. For these four groups, (American Conservatives Union, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks) both John Boehner and Paul Ryan are scored well on their lifetime record. What is more surprising is that these groups are content to attack Boehner, especially over his assertion that “I’m as conservative as anybody around this place,” and that the outside groups have “lost all credibility.” Yet they are more hesitant to go after Ryan, who they seem to concede as being more conservative than the Speaker. At the same time, 3 out of the 4 groups assign a higher score for Boehner than for Ryan, and the fourth separates the two by only one point.
Boehner is right on this one. These groups aren’t fighting for conservatism, they are fighting for their own survival, and the louder they fight with whomever is higher up in leadership, the better it is for them. But it isn’t good for the people they claim to be representing.