Tough crowd.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Conservatives in Congress Won't Stand for a Caesar

Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. He was editor of the New York Times Book Review from 2004 to 2013.
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As the Republican Party reaches an uneasy truce with Donald Trump, ideological conservatives still insist that he is not one of them and that his victory is a defeat for their ideas.

Such skepticism isn’t new for conservatives, especially when it comes to presidents.

Of the six Republican presidents in the modern era, only two -- Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush -- firmly embraced the conservative movement. The other four -- Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush -- were moderates and on most issues governed from the center.

Conservative strength flowed elsewhere, from Capitol Hill, just as it does today and will again should the Republicans hold on to their congressional majorities in November. This is the message Paul Ryan sent in his sharp rebuke of Donald Trump, who at this point, Ryan said, doesn’t seem to “share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution.”

By casting his doubts in these large terms, Ryan drew greater attention to his own “agenda project” -- organizing committees and task forces to draw up plans on national security, taxes, health care and entitlements. The idea is to provide a “tangible blueprint on which Republicans could run in November” and then proceed to govern on, the Washington Post reported in April.

At the moment it’s hard to envision members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, or whatever version we see in 2017, falling in line with President Trump, let alone cooperating with President Hillary Clinton. They will defy their own speaker. They may agree on a number of issues with Trump -- on cutting taxes, limiting immigration and protecting gun rights, say. But on some big-budget policies -- on entitlements, health care and education -- they seem bound to disagree. And on foreign policy -- relations with Russia, for example, and on free trade -- the clashes could be fierce.

In those cases, the barrier to compromise may not be so much the conflicting worldviews of Trump and Ryan, but rather the deep divisions within the House, as ideological conservatives, many of whom have doubts about Ryan himself, seek to dominate the majority.

And that may be what conservatives want. Unlike moderate Republicans and most Democrats, who think of congressional government in legislative terms -- the writing and passing of bills -- ideological conservatives have long viewed Congress as a place for affirming, and reaffirming, core principles. “Minority leaders have no responsibility for presenting a program,” Robert Taft, the leading conservative legislator in the Roosevelt-Truman era, once said. “Their role is one of opposition and criticism.”

In later times this translated into blocking the “big-government” policies of presidents in both parties, whether it was Southern Democrats who watered down Eisenhower’s civil rights bill, fiscal conservatives who rejected Nixon’s attempt to overhaul welfare, or the anti-immigration bloc in the House that kept George W. Bush from reforming immigration policy.

This defiance has come at a cost. In the Obama years it has led to historically low approval ratings for Congress. But it has also yielded gains. The midterm landslides in 2010 and 2014 helped Republicans pick up 69 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. Congressional Republicans are more ideological than ever, and also more powerful.

This was exactly the formula the pioneers of modern conservatism came up with more than half a century ago. In his essay “The Two Majorities” (1960), the political scientist Willmoore Kendall argued that the country was split in two. One half was composed of elites in the policy establishment, the media and on campuses. This majority tried “to make of presidential elections the central ritual of American politics,” Kendall wrote, and promulgated the idea (or fiction) that new presidents come into office with a “mandate” for governing.

But there was also a second, “congressional majority.” Its will was expressed in down-ballot elections held in the hinterland, with its large population of “rural folk and white southerners,” who looked to the Senate and House to stand up for their values and interests.

To elites, these resisters seemed not a majority at all, but a backward minority, “little bands of willful men” who used the filibuster in the Senate and arcane Rules Committee procedures in the House to block legislation most of the country favored.

In our own time, the friction has increased. The ever-narrowing Republican base is allied by “tribalism,” the respected Congress-watcher Norman Ornstein has said, and its successes in congressional (and statehouse) elections “are not formulas for representative democracy to work and have legitimacy.”

This equates good government with simple majority rule. But conservatives have long said this equation is wrong. Our system wasn’t meant to be “an unrestricted plebiscitary democracy,” James Burnham argued in his 1959 book “Congress and the American Tradition.”

On the contrary, it was a republic, in which the interests of the minority were supposed to be protected. In recent times, Burnham wrote, that minority was threatened by “Caesarist” presidents, elected in landslides, who bypassed Congress and made direct appeals to the public. For this reason he and his colleagues at National Review supported the anti-Communist investigations of Joseph McCarthy as well as the Bricker Amendment, a Senate proposal that would have altered the Constitution, requiring all treaties to be subject to congressional approval. 

Both McCarthy and Bricker seemed to be undercutting Eisenhower’s ability to wage the Cold War at a critical moment of conflict with the Soviet Union. But to conservatives Eisenhower was a liberal in disguise who was perpetuating the policies of his Democratic predecessors. The public had been deceived, and Congress, through its “watchdog” function, must sound the alarm -- the same explanation we heard for the many Benghazi hearings and the House’s lengthy investigation of the Internal Revenue Service.

“The White House is not going to save the Republic, regardless of who is its occupant,” Senator Barry Goldwater, a godfather of modern conservatism, said in 1960. “It has to be on Capitol Hill where the nation’s lawmakers assemble.” He himself ran for president that year and got the nomination in 1964, vowing both times “not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” A creature of the Senate, he aimed to peel back presidential power, to restore the runaway democracy to its true self as a constitutional republic.

In the days ahead we can expect to hear echoes of Goldwater as conservatives press the case that while the presidential election may indeed be the “central ritual” of our politics, it is not the only election that matters. And if the Republicans retain their control of Congress, or even just the House, we will be told, time and again, that its members speak for the true majority, however outnumbered it may seem.

(Corrects description in the 16th paragraph of the Bricker Amendment, in story published May 6.)

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

To contact the author of this story:
Sam Tanenhaus at tanenhaus.lit@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net