The challenge of governing in a party of 'knuckleheads'

A man jogs past the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30, 2013.
A man jogs past the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30, 2013.
Just a couple of months ago, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was surprisingly candid about the challenges he faces from his own party's members in his own chamber. "You might notice I have a few knuckleheads in my conference," he said. In a separate interview soon after, Boehner added, "Dealing with Democrats is one thing. Dealing with the knuckleheads is another."
Two months later, the good news for the Speaker is that his majority has reached new heights. The bad news, the influx of knuckleheads will make Boehner's job more difficult in ways that are widely under-appreciated.
The conventional wisdom, especially within the Beltway media, is that congressional Republicans really will -- no fooling, this time they mean it -- govern responsibly now that they control the House and Senate. The GOP realizes it's been given an opportunity, the theory goes, and it intends to prove how capable the party is.
I'm at a bit of a loss to explain why anyone would actually believe this -- observable, unambiguous evidence from the last several years points in a very different direction -- and every Beltway pundit who predicted responsible Republican governing after the 2010 midterms looks quite foolish four years later.
But when shaping expectations for the next two years, it's important to appreciate the circumstances that make success so unlikely. Yes, there's obviously the chasm that exists between the center-left Democratic Party and the far-right Republican Party. But as Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein explained well the other day, there's also the division Boehner alluded to -- the one within the GOP itself.

Welcome to the 114th Congress, in which the warfare within the GOP will only be amplified by the party's new power. The pragmatic desire of mainstream Republicans to transcend their "party of no" label and show that they can actually govern will clash with the forces that continue to pull the GOP to the right and oppose anything the president does. This fight within the party will define the new Congress nearly as much as the battles with a Democratic president. [...] If anything, the breadth and depth of the Republican victory will convince the party base -- and the conservative activists, talk-radio hosts and bloggers animating it -- that the obstruction of the past several years worked beautifully, that they have the power and the mandate to push radical anti-government policies, and that any compromise would be abandonment and betrayal.

Over the last week, much of the political world has closely watched Republicans like Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), monitoring signals of what's to come. But as the Speaker's repeated and humiliating failures remind us, the GOP's direction will not necessarily be decided by its ostensible leaders.
It's "the knuckleheads" who'll be grabbing the steering wheel from the back seat.
Indeed, a week after the elections, they're already complaining about the Republican leadership being too cautious about waging a partisan political war.

Despite Republicans' ascension to Senate control and an expanded House majority, many conservatives from the party's activist wing fear that congressional leaders are already being too timid with President Obama. They do not want to hear that government shutdowns are off the table or that repealing the Affordable Care Act is impossible -- two things Republican leaders have said in recent days. [...] As Republicans on Capitol Hill transition from being the opposition party to being one that has to show it can govern, a powerful tension is emerging: how to move forward with an agenda that challenges the president without self-destructing.

And if GOP leaders had any idea how to do that, this wouldn't be such a challenge.
Obviously, Republicans won big last week, receiving an impressive reward from voters following four years of failure and obstruction. But the numbers obscure a dilemma: McConnell will be the Majority Leader, trying to lead a Senate GOP conference that includes some of the most radical senators of the modern political era. Boehner will remain the House Speaker, but his enormous conference now has more unhinged "knuckleheads" than ever before. Indeed, Boehner actually lost some reliable, mainstream allies from his ranks, who were replaced with new Republican lawmakers -- all of whom are more extreme than their predecessors.
The lame-duck Congress gets underway today. Enjoy it while it lasts.