Rising Star

12.13.13

Boehner, the Tea Party, and the Ryan Express

House budget vote: Tea Party stock way down, Paul Ryan stock way up.

The headlines this morning are about John Boehner, how he finally unloaded on the right wing. That's understandable because he's the speaker, and it's interesting, but there's more to look at here. Three angles interest me: what last night's vote revealed about the actual balance of power within the House GOP; what's next for the outside groups; and what this does for Paul Ryan.

Mark the vote last night among House Republicans--169 of them voted for the budget, and just 62 of them opposed it. That's nearly three to one voting to play ball. Not that it's a great budget. A number of Democrats opposed it too, mostly because of the limit on unemployment benefits. And the overall funding levels, while better than the sequester, are still awfully low.

But at least it is a budget. The difference between no dinner and a bad dinner is the presence of food on the plate. At least there's food.

They could have been behaving this way the whole time, you know. I mean, this is what they are first and foremost paid to do--to legislate, the first order of business of which is to pass a budget. They could and should have been behaving this way since 2009.

This tea party they're terrified of? So, it's one quarter of the caucus, as of last night. One quarter. So what? I'll never forget what Barney Frank told Jason Zengerle for New York magazine back in April:

People ask me, “Why don’t you guys get together?” And I say, “Exactly how much would you expect me to cooperate with Michele Bachmann?” And they say, “Are you saying they’re all Michele Bachmann?” And my answer is no, they’re not all Michele Bachmann. Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann.

But now we see it's not half. It's half of half. Actually, we've kind of known this. And yet, the other three-quarters have been letting themselves get led around by the nose by this one quarter. I would imagine it's roughly the same story back home in their districts. The people they hear from are the most rabid and most vocal 25 percent. The other 75 percent would probably accept a little compromise. But from the dark waters of that 25 percent, a primary challenge could well emerge. And that's what has mattered.

That, plus the fact that any such challenge could count on the backing of the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, the Koch Brothers' groups, and a few others. These outfits are really on the spot now. What happens inside these organizations is perhaps the most interesting piece of fallout from this whole thing. Will they tone it down or ratchet it up? Probably the latter for now. They are committed to a handful of primaries against incumbents in the Senate, and they need to win two or three of those anyway to prevent from being declared irrelevant. This will be fascinating.

And finally, Mr. Ryan. There's going to be a lot of bluster on the right, but I think he comes out of this not merely burnished, but the presidential front-runner (!). He still has support on the hard right--he's lost some, but his name got a lot of those 162 votes. If Dave Camp had been the chief negotiator (who? the Ways and Means chairman), we probably would have seen the usual grim result. So Ryan's cred on the right got this through.

And now, he's going to have even more cred among the win-the-morning-Game-Change crowd that sets the conventional wisdom. By their lights, he's da man. He's already got some of them besotted with his poverty rhetoric. It should go without saying that his ideas about how to fight poverty are as a batty as they come, completely driven by ideology. But in official Washington, that doesn't matter nearly as much as the perception he creates by being a conservative Republicans who actually uses the word poverty without spitting contempt. That makes him fresh, you see.

In sum, Ryan now uniquely straddles the mainstream conservative and hard-right worlds. No one else among the 2016 contenders does. This could all change of course. And he's not going to register, I shouldn't think, as they front-runner in the polls. But he's pulled something off here. He tends to be forgotten in '16 conversations for some reason. I doubt any longer.