These days, conservatives have to take their victories where they can find them. After all, the Affordable Care Act is still the law of the land, gay people are getting married, our noble job creators suffer under the tortuous and unjust burden of high marginal income tax rates, the government continues to provide food stamps to layabouts who think their children ought to eat, immigrants walk amongst us speaking strange and indecipherable tongues, and worst of all, that usurper Barack Obama strolls into the Oval Office every day like he's the president or something.
In the face of all this horror, even small victories can be cause for celebration. So it was when Marco Rubio told attendees at the Values Voter Summit on Friday that Speaker of the House John Boehner had announced his resignation, and was met with whoops and cheers lasting a full 30 seconds. I couldn't help wondering: What exactly do they think is going to happen now? Is there any way that Boehner's departure makes it more likely that any of the things conservatives say they want will actually come to pass?
Today's Republicans are hardly the first party to spend more time worrying about betrayal from their colleagues than from their opponents on the other side; it's a dynamic nearly as old as politics itself. But they truly have created not just a politics of anger, but a politics utterly removed from any substance at all. Policy goals may be the nominal justification for all the anger, but in truth nobody bothers figuring out how they might be achieved. The performance is its own end.
Ted Cruz is in many ways the prototypical legislator for this Republican era. On the campaign trail, he tells audiences he has "a proven record" that qualifies him for the presidency. But what is that record? Since he got to Washington two and a half years ago, he has not authored any legislation that passed, or used his position on various committees to some important policy purpose. He'll tell you a lot about "standing up" — against Obamacare, against increasing the debt ceiling, against Planned Parenthood. And what were the results of all that standing? Did Ted Cruz get the Affordable Care Act repealed, get taxes cut, get government restrained — did he get a single solitary thing that conservatives would look at and say, "Yes, that was one of our goals, and he helped make it happen"?
Of course not. Cruz is not a legislator, he's a performer, a kind of right-wing version of the Code Pink activists who disrupt Capitol Hill hearings. He doesn't accomplish anything, but he certainly does stand up. So it's no accident that many House Republicans look to him as a mentor when they're considering shutting down the government — another bit of political performance art that inevitably gains conservatives nothing, as long as you're thinking about the goals they claim to espouse.
You might say it's not his fault — after all, he's a first-term senator in the party that doesn't control the White House. The problem is that Cruz and others like him continually tell their constituents that none of that will matter as long as Republicans despise Obama with sufficient fervor and show sufficient immovability once they do all that "standing up." And so their voters are inevitably disappointed.
You can blame ignorant voters who expect things they'll never get, but the greatest responsibility lies with the politicians who keep telling them to expect it. At that same Values Voter Summit, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal (Is there anyone who has been more diminished by running for president this year?) got up and told the crowd, "That's one down and 434 to go," adding, "Here's what I say in response to Speaker Boehner stepping down: Mitch McConnell, it is now your turn."
Yeah, if every member of Congress were ousted, that would...um...I don't know, but to hell with them! The fact is that no one has done more to thwart Barack Obama over the last seven years than Mitch McConnell has, and there is no Republican in Washington more shrewd. Tea Partiers hate him not because he's some kind of moderate compromiser, but because he's realistic about what is and isn't possible — and because he isn't shy about expressing his dislike for ultra-conservative members of Congress who couldn't strategize their way to passing a National Puppy and Kitten Appreciation Week.
Jindal isn't the only one saying conservatives should turn their unquenchable rage on McConnell now that Boehner is out of the way. And there's no doubt that the idea that Boehner and McConnell have been ineffectual is driving much of the success of Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson, as they feed the childish and ignorant idea that an outsider president can swoop into Washington and make everything work through the force of his or her will. But to repeat the question I asked earlier, what do they think is going to happen now? If the next speaker of the House is conservative enough, will that mean Barack Obama will suddenly start signing all the ridiculous bills the House passes? Of course he won't.
Intra-party conflict and tumult can leave a party stronger, as new ideas get tested and fresh approaches find their way to implementation. But it's awfully hard to look at the GOP today and say that they are going to emerge from this period primed for great policy victories. They've got the anger thing down pat though.