"[T]hey saw in the New Deal only revolution or anarchy; ... they fought it in bitterness and in vain."--Henry Steele Commager, on the congressional conservatives under FDR, 1959
You would not expect House conservatives, dwindled in numbers and without even the consoling possibility of filibusters, to be relishing the prospect of 2009. But purist right-wingers in the House are oddly happy these days. That's because they, like many outcast peoples, have discovered in their folklore their own Little Bighorn, a tale of resistance that gives them pride and hope.
The legend was born last August 1. Throughout the $4-per-gallon-gasoline summer, House conservatives had been pestering their Democratic overlords to scrap Congress's moratorium on offshore oil drilling; but, by the end of July, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had tired of the squabbling and dismissed the House for vacation. But one faction of representatives was too impatient to go. Insulted by Pelosi's brush-off and sensing a hot opportunity, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana rallied a troupe of conservatives in the abandoned chamber. There, as the Capitol staff milled about turning off lights, microphones, and cameras, Pence's gang announced that they were launching a hostile occupation of the House floor until Pelosi returned.
Private TV cameras aren't allowed inside the House chamber, but accounts of the insurgency began to trickle out. A Fox News reporter with a hidden camcorder taped grainy video of an "unidentified male"--presumably a congressman--bellowing, "This is the Boston Tea Party!," while Texan John Culberson, a tech geek, whipped out his BlackBerry and began furiously posting to Twitter, a voguish social-networking website. "I am speaking now on the floor to the gallery and to you on Twitter demanding that Speaker Pelosi cancel vacation and vote to drill here now," Culberson tweeted. "We are speaking without microphones--as though it were 1908." Others succumbed to the revolutionary mood, snatching Culberson's BlackBerry and blasting out their own breathless dispatches: "I am Roy Blunt, the GOP Whip, and it [sic] an outrageous move the Democrat leadership has adjourned the House for 5 weeks."
The picture of naughty congressmen rowdily tweeting inside the House chamber couldn't have been juicier for television, and soon the Boston Tea Party clip was looping again and again on Fox, while C-SPAN broadcast a cellphone video Culberson had shot of the insurgents scheming in a Capitol anteroom. By the next morning, the story had ignited. Constituents began badgering their representatives about drilling, and, among Republicans, appeals for more drilling took on the antic, performative style of the Vietnam protests. There was theme music: Country star Aaron Tippin performed a barn-buster called "Drill Here, Drill Now" with Mike Huckabee on electric guitar. There were props--Republican congressmen began appearing in the Capitol carrying red gas cans--and spontaneous "Drill, baby, drill" chants erupted at Republican presidential rallies.
Democrats, for their part, assumed the wretched role of desperate, besieged establishmentarians, some sourly defending their holdout stances--"I'm just trying to save the planet," Pelosi complained to Politico--while others frantically cut reelection ads in front of oil rigs. And the conservatives made it clear that, when Pelosi did return, they would agree to no concessions to environmentalism. After Republicans denounced the compromise she ultimately offered as a "hoax" and a "sham," the hapless Democrats simply let the 27-year offshore drilling moratorium expire.
The episode was the happiest moment of the House Republicans' two years in the minority. But, for House conservatives, the energy insurgency provided far more than mere satisfaction: It became a blueprint for the future. Forget the self-flagellating remedies proposed by white-flag Republicans like David Frum or the Sam's Club crowd. The House right-wingers concluded from the drilling victory that conservatism needn't compromise ideologically in order to win--just the opposite. It's a lesson they're eager to apply to Barack Obama's economic schemes, like health care reform and the huge infrastructure stimulus package. Rather than accepting the implications of John McCain's recession-driven loss--that Americans, perhaps, might be growing weary of Republican economics--the conservatives intend to trigger a popular revolt, like the one they provoked over drilling, against Democrat-led socialism itself.
It isn't surprising that the new coterie of House right-wingers should be stiff-necked. They arrived in Congress after the 1990s were over, and so missed the transformation of Newt Gingrich's visionary conservatism into the power obsession of Tom DeLay. Instead, they passed those years as cloistered monks of the Newt order, nurturing their anti-government philosophies. Pence ran a conservative think tank in Fort Wayne. His comrade-in-arms, Jeff Flake of Arizona, operated Phoenix's Barry Goldwater Institute. Jeb Hensarling of Texas managed Phil Gramm's slash-the-government campaign for president in 1996. These conservatives set out for Washington with a snow-pure enthusiasm for the Contract with America, but, when they got there, they found House Republicans blithely doling out cash for earmarks and George W. Bush plumping for Medicare Part D. "I'm like the minuteman who showed up ten years late for the Revolution, " Pence once complained. And so the Pence gang formed not out of opposition to liberal perfidies but to the ideological insufficiencies of the Republican Congress.
Before long, they were zealously lambasting their colleagues' apostasies. "The explosion in earmarks under Republicans completely flies in the face of the principles our party supposedly stands for," Flake trumpeted in 2004. In an interview with The New York Sun, Hensarling compared the congressional majority to "winos" drunk on spending. And, in May of 2006, Pence and Hensarling used parliamentary tricks to delete millions of dollars in programs from a Republican-designed veterans' spending bill. Their jeremiads did not make them popular. "Please don't come out here and lecture us," moderate Republican Ray LaHood carped on the House floor during the veterans' bill spat. Flake (who, as the youngest and most artlessly earnest of the set, came in for special contempt) recalls being blamed for the GOP's 2006 defeat. "I always heard, 'If Flake and Hensarling had shut up, nobody would have heard about [the spending], and we would have skated.'" At the House Republican retreat the following January, Jerry Lewis, the old bull of appropriations, vented about Flake, and Boehner booted him off the Judiciary Committee on account of "bad behavior."
But, when Democrats assumed control of the House, the band of hard-liners began to be vindicated. To their amusement, Republicans discovered that the same procedural gimmicks that had so irritated them during the 109th could be deployed against Democrats. (When Pence launched one of his spending-bill revolts against a Pelosi-designed emergency supplemental package, his old enemy Jerry Lewis gleefully helped recruit mutineers from the Appropriations Committee.) Gradually, Republicans began to notice that their biggest triumphs in the 110th Congress--or their splashiest ones, at least--were won not by the leadership but by unflinching, drama-loving renegades, who, in refusing to play ball with non-believers, made the audacious case that the American public remained on their ultraconservative side. One such triumph unfolded on the Senate side of the Capitol, where a Hensarling ally brought down comprehensive immigration reform by boiling conservative dogma into a catchphrase ("this is amnesty") that lit up Drudge Report and talk radio, galvanized public outrage, and filled the bill's proponents with fear of their own constituents. (One popular California right-wing radio program shut down Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein's Washington, D.C., phone lines by challenging its listeners to place 30,000 anti-amnesty calls to the switchboard.)
By the time Pence and his pro-drilling confederates stormed the House floor on August 1, Republicans were primed to accept the ensuing battle's lessons: One, dramatic gestures pay; two, conservatives don't have to compromise to capture the people's imagination. "When [Pelosi] and other Democratic leaders felt the force of America against them ... Americans let their voices be heard, and they were enraged, and it affected the way the [energy] bill was put before the House," explains Representative Louie Gohmert, a bald, cheerful judge from Texas who got swept up in the August excitement.
Soon, as Lehman Brothers melted down and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson rushed around the Hill begging representatives to do something, a new menace ripe for attack emerged: government intervention in the free market. Psychologically rejuvenated by the energy fight, conservatives turned their newfound taste for melodrama against government bailouts. Hensarling derided the September $700 billion plan to rescue the financial industry as a "slippery slope to socialism," and Thaddeus McCotter, a conservative from the Detroit suburbs, exclaimed that "it was no mistake that, during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the slogan was 'Peace, land, and bread.' Today, you are being asked to choose between bread and freedom. I suggest that the people on Main Street have said they prefer their freedom!"
All 17 House Republican freshmen rejected Boehner's tearful pro-bailout appeals and signed up with Hensarling's mutiny against the first bailout vote. And the enthusiastic response from constituents confirmed the conservatives' view that, while America (perplexingly) might not be planning to vote for them, it stood with them. As Culberson posted proudly on Twitter: "Texans core belief =leave me alone: gov't stay away from my home, my family, my church, my school, my bank account & my guns." Even Boehner became a believer. After the GOP's loss on Election Day, its second in a row, he promoted Pence, his old rival, to the leadership team and mailed a letter to House Republicans praising the conservatives and vowing to use the energy episode as his battle plan.
The looming battle that the Republicans foresee, of course, is the one that began during the bailout struggles in the fall: the fight over Obama's plans to refashion our government into a heavily interventionist one, whether by a huge economic stimulus package or a universal health care plan. And they mean to fight it with the kind of arguments from anti-spending first principles that Pence, Hensarling, and Flake used against Republicans years ago, when the GOP was still flush with power. The socialist threat is urgent, they believe, and it is never too soon to launch pro-freedom counterattacks.
Gohmert, the conservative Texas judge, had the brainstorm for his own contribution to the coming wave as he emerged from anesthesia a few days before Thanksgiving. He'd just undergone surgery to repair his anterior cruciate ligament, torn in the annual House softball game, and, as he lay recovering, he was possessed with the germ of an idea. He dropped an e-mail to Newt Gingrich. "He wrote, 'Do you realize that the amount of money they want [in the remaining, as-yet-unused $350 billion of the Wall Street bailout fund] is so great that you could actually give every American a tax holiday for two months?'" Gingrich remembers: "I looked at it and I thought, wow, what a great way to quantify it." Newt shot back a message predicting that a two-month holiday on both income and Social Security taxes--proposed by Gohmert as a conservatively populist, don't-let-Big-Brother-take-your-money alternative to the bailouts--would be "brilliant." "I don't get a lot of e-mails from anybody, especially somebody as smart as Newt, saying 'This is brilliant,'" Gohmert modestly admits.
After Newt stamped his approval, the pressure was on to go public. Two weeks later, Gohmert mounted a press conference in the same narrow, marble-tiled anteroom where the conservatives had held their energy-battle briefings. He did his best to live up to the energy fight's model. He came armed with a huge poster featuring the words "TREASURY SECRETARY PAULSON VS. YOU" and a blowup image of the Treasury secretary's head, tweaked to look maximally like Dr. Evil's. As he spoke to the small clutch of reporters gathered around the poster, he periodically whacked at Paulson's face with his cane. "Get the [bailout] money away from this guy here, and the government," he warned. Whack. A few reporters snickered. "The intention is [to repeat] what we did in September, when the American public arose," he said. Whack. "Hey," he added, addressing the battered Paulson directly. "How about you let them have their own money?"
But whether the tax-holiday proposal, or any other antics to dramatize socialism's menace, can catch fire like drilling or immigration did is uncertain. "I firmly believe the American people are on our side and not the other side when it comes to that stark contrast," says Representative Tom Price, the incoming chair of the Republican Study Committee. But, he admits, you never know which issue "is going to galvanize."
History might provide Price a clue. New Deal-era Republicans in Congress faced similar burdens in the 1930s as today's conservatives do: a desperately unpopular GOP ex-president and a new, ambitious Democratic president whom large numbers of people believed could do no wrong; tired veterans of the past decade at the helm in both chambers; an economic meltdown for which they were blamed; and a depressing want of bodies. ("A few years ago, you had to use the whole House for your caucus. Now you can hold it in a phone booth," one Democrat taunted Republican Minority Leader Bertrand Snell after the disastrous election of 1932, in which Republicans lost more than 100 seats in the House.)
The New Deal Republicans, too, sallied forth toward the 1934 midterms armed with their own version of the anti-socialism strategy. Many believed that, although Americans had elected the charismatic Roosevelt by a landslide, they were likely to regard his actual policies with distaste. The Republican contribution to the congressional record between 1933 and the midterms often reads like the ancient echo of Thaddeus McCotter. "We are on our way to Moscow, " Representative Joseph W. Martin, an influential conservative, insisted after FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Act was delivered to Congress in the spring of 1933. "I have seen hitherto boasted State sovereignty offered up on the Moloch of centralized power," bayed another Republican. "I have seen a dictatorship spring up which must have made the noses of Herr Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mustapha Kemal of Turkey turn green with envy. Independence in private business is a thing of the past, and individual liberty is only a memory."
But the conservatives overestimated the public fear of Bolshevism. "The hysterical conservatives ought to know by this time that in a contest at the level of mere epithets they have not the ghost of a chance to win," wrote Walter Lippmann. Come November 1934, they lost big, again. They only began to assert themselves during the Depression when they adopted a more internal strategy, targeting conservative Democratic members by instituting an intricate new floor-whip system whose regional whips aggressively poached votes across the aisle.
The upcoming 111th Congress would seem to offer a tantalizing territory for poaching, with its expanded ranks of red-state, anti-spending, guns-and-ammo Democrats. But the current crop of Republican conservatives express nothing but disdain for the so-called Democratic fiscal hawks. "All the Blue Dogs do is roll over for Pelosi," sniffs one House Republican staffer. "If [the Blue Dogs] wanted to, they could control the fiscal destiny in Congress, but they won't," says Hensarling. The disregard may be mutual. At his press conference, Gohmert suggested his tax-holiday plan was getting attention from Democrats. When asked which ones, a staffer mentioned North Carolina's Heath Shuler and Pennsylvania's Jason Altmire. Shuler's press secretary, though, said that while he thought a copy of the Gohmert plan might have been delivered to the office, "it's possible it just got thrown into a box." Altmire's flack was even less animated. "I don't know," she giggled, when asked whether her boss liked the plan. "I have no idea."
The conservatives' big bet is that they don't need the Shulers and Altmires in on the ground floor this time around. Talk radio, cable television, and the Internet have intervened between the 1930s and today, giving national grassroots-pressure strategies more punch. But, of course, the real cornerstone to the conservatives' hopes isn't John Culberson's Twitter feed. It's the conviction that the United States is a center-right country, a mantra that surfaced in Boehner's game-plan letter to Republicans in the House. But--energy and immigration fights aside--over the last few years, the American people have dealt their expectations on this count a bitter stream of disappointments.
In the marble-tiled antechamber, after his tax-holiday press conference has broken up, Louie Gohmert lingers. "The chance for it is if the Americans rise up again," he repeats, musingly. Regarding the evaporating scene--a few of his young staffers are taking turns snapping photos with the blowup image of Paulson--his bullish face-the-cameras grin slides toward something just a little more pensive. "There is a chance."
Eve Fairbanks is associate editor at The New Republic.