House Radicals on a Shutdown Suicide Mission

A handful of Republicans want to spark a crisis to prove how conservative they are.

Representative Jim Jordan has some demands.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Something about the House Freedom Caucus and its Senate ally, Ted Cruz, makes me think of "Life of Brian."

For example? The Cruz idea of shutting down the government unless Barack Obama agrees to defund Planned Parenthood, and the House Freedom Caucus plan to force a vote to depose John Boehner (so it can install a speaker who will go along with the shutdown plan), call to mind the Judean People's Front crack suicide squad, which showed up to "rescue" Brian by killing themselves in front of him. 

Congressional scholars Greg Koger (here) and Josh Huder (here) explain why the plan to replace Boehner is destined to fail. In short, with only a handful of Republicans in on the revolt and no reason to expect Democrats to join a move that would produce a radical speaker if it succeeded, there's simply no way the rebels will have the votes.

Presumably, the way to defeat Boehner and replace him with someone more conservative would be to find an ambitious Republican who was acceptable to mainstream conservatives in the House conference, but who might be willing to go along with the freedom caucus's demands to build a winning coalition. That's a bit more likely now than it was earlier in Obama's presidency, with the possibility of unified Republican government after the 2016 elections on the horizon.

While Obama is in place, however, any showdown over financing the government has to end with an agreement between the speaker and the president -- a deal certain to be opposed by the House Freedom Caucus (and Cruz). As long as this is the chain of events, no one is going to want to take Boehner's place because he or she will have to immediately turn around and (supposedly) sell out conservatives. So even if someone besides the handful of radicals is disgruntled, the timing for a coup is wrong.

This is assuming the goal is success. As Sarah Binder points out at the Monkey Cage talking about the shutdown confrontation, it's more likely that defeat is the radicals' real goal. As Binder puts it, a "box canyon defeat" -- deliberately putting themselves in a hopeless situation with no exit -- is the whole point. 

Remember, the aim of the radicals is to show they are the only True Conservatives. Since no real difference exists between them and most other Republicans in Congress on the issues, they use tactics to differentiate themselves. And one effective way to ensure that other conservatives don't just opt for those tactics too is to pursue the stupidest, most counterproductive strategy they can come up with.

By that standard, the only thing that went wrong in the 2013 shutdown showdown was that the rest of the Republican conference followed the radicals over the cliff. Now, as Binder points out, the others have learned their lesson and don't want to repeat what they see as a fiasco for themselves. So it's a perfect opportunity for the radicals to demonstrate that those who don't choose certain defeat are just a bunch of squishes.

Thus the back and forth at the Republican debate Wednesday between Senator Lindsey Graham, who patiently explained why a shutdown won't achieve defunding Planned Parenthood, and Bobby Jindal, who insisted that Republicans in Congress go ahead with it anyway.

So: Boehner almost certainly won't be dumped. Will we have a shutdown? As always the question is whether the bulk of the Republican conference -- mainstream conservatives -- want one or not. One bit of hope for avoiding this prospect is that at least one House Freedom Caucus member (Tom McClintock of California) has walked away from the group, convinced that it was undermining, not achieving, conservative goals. It's no surprise that the crack suicide squad is cheering for a shutdown.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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