It is rare that a political pundit enjoys seeing his recommendation become reality. So the emergence of the Freedom Caucus among House Republicans comes as something of a shock.
The organization, headed by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), will act as a kind of friendly conservative opposition within the overall GOP caucus to hold members and leadership accountable to the mandate they received from voters–and to prevent the repeat of past negotiating collapses (e.g. debt ceiling, amnesty).
“Our objective is not to say ‘no,'” Jordan told me this week. “Our objective is to help persuade.”
Jordan says the Freedom Caucus will conduct media campaigns around conservative positions on legislation, and provide policy alternatives to proposals on the floor, so that Republican leadership has the strength to stand up to the White House and the opposition.
“We’re willing to get to yes, trying to get to yes—consistent with what we told the voters we’re going to do,” he said.
In the past, conservatives have failed to drive a clear agenda, or to prevent Republican leadership from capitulating to the Democrats. The problem first became apparent during the debt ceiling crisis in 2011, when the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan passed by Republicans–and championed by Jordan, who then headed the Republican Study Committee (RSC)–was flatly rejected by Democrats. The result: the Budget Control Act, the first of many conservative capitulations to follow.
The irony then, and today, is that while the Tea Party was crucial to Republicans regaining the majority, and has succeeded in blocking many of President Barack Obama’s more ambitious legislative plans, it has been unable to lead, partly because of its own ambivalence about holding real political power.
Worse, in the last several months, conservatives have failed to convince GOP leaders to take real steps to block President Obama’s violation of the constitutional separation of powers.
In my recent e-book, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, I suggest that part of the solution is developing new political institutions and new leadership–something the Tea Party has failed to do in the past.
The RSC has become so large and broad that it struggles to advocate for conservative positions. The Tea Party caucus has suffered the loss of key members and leaders. And attempts to exert clout through biennial Speaker elections have been disappointing flops.
So Jordan and eight of his colleagues launched the Freedom Caucus in January. The precise membership of the caucus is a closely-guarded secret, though the identities of the founders are public. Jordan told me that there are between 30 and 40 in the group, which is “smaller, more cohesive, more agile” than the RSC.
This week, the Freedom Caucus’s first staffer, Steve Chartan, started work–too late for the debate on the Department of Homeland Security, but ready for what lies ahead.
Merely by existing, the Freedom Caucus has filled an institutional gap in conservative leadership in Washington. Yet it is not clear exactly how the “free birds” (as opposed to “wacko birds”) will exert leverage.
They do not intend to act as a voting bloc, and they seem ill-equipped to run media campaigns–at least compared to well-funded outside groups.
In fact, the way Jordan describes the group, it almost seems like a project to reassure conservative voters rather than to wage battles.
Jordan told me his goal is to show conservative, middle-class voters who gave the GOP one last chance in November that “they “are not forgotten.”
This is a “smart way, with a smile on our face–a positive, optimistic way. Sometimes that means we have to push leadership, sometimes it means we present policy ideas,” he explains.
Indeed. But there will, sooner or later, be tough votes that require conservatives to emerge from the shadows.
That will be the Freedom Caucus’s big test. Can the “free birds” fly?