Friday, October 2, 2015

Leadership Debates

A few thoughts about the current leadership reshuffle in the wake of Speaker Boehner's resignation:

Current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy seems an early favorite to take on Boehner's job, but the other positions of Majority Leader and Whip are more up in the air.  (And according to some folks, such as Bill Kristol, even the Speakership may be up for grabs.  The fact that Jason Chaffetz is now rumored to be running for Speaker may be a sign of the race remaining in play.)  Tom Price and Steve Scalise seem to be the principal candidates aiming to be Leader, though everything still seems pretty fluid.

Some, including Ace of Spades, have used this leadership race to call for a major transformation of GOP leadership ranks.  Many Republicans seem to recognize this desire for change, but remain conflicted about how to cope with it.  As one House Republican said to NRO's Joel Gehrke, “Do we want real change in leadership or do we just want to move the deck chairs around?...I just want stability.”

Achieving that stability, though, may require some changes in policy (to put aside questions of who implements this policy for a moment).  John Boehner has been in an uncomfortable position throughout much of his term as Speaker not principally because of random incidentals but, instead, because of deeper forces.  The GOP as a whole has considerable internal tensions, which seem to have escalated in recent months.

Perhaps one of the biggest issues facing GOP congressional leadership is the breakdown in trust.  Grassroots conservatives, upon whom the party depends for much of its organization and many of its votes, remain deeply distrustful of party leaders, fearing that many in the Beltway hold different priorities than they do.  Whether or not this suspicion is warranted, it is real.  Pete Spiliakos has recently written a number of posts exploring this topic of trust, and the lack thereof, for Republicans, and party leaders would be wise to examine his arguments.

This breakdown of trust has aided and abetted many bouts of Failure Theater, a performance that tends to upset the base and to alienate moderates.  A party with renewed trust in its congressional leaders is one that can speak in more conciliatory tones and fight more effectively for key policy aims.

Part of the enterprise of regaining trust no doubt involves messaging, but it also demands real shifts in policy.  Vague denunciations of "Obamacare" aren't going to cut it.  Republicans can take up issues that expand the coalition.  For instance, immigration remains a key point of frustration for many conservatives and moderates, so leadership might consider criticizing anti-opportunity guest-worker programs more.  That sort of move would not only hearten grassroots Republicans; it would also appeal to working-class voters in the middle.  By focusing on policy issues that unite the right and center, Republicans can avoid getting sucked into endless procedural debates and present a more affirmative message.

As Republicans reflect on who should lead the party in the House, they should think seriously about who offers the best way forward for regaining this trust.  Republicans would benefit from a leadership that has the trust of the grassroots, an ability to advance conservative policies in a way that is inclusive and hopeful, and a willingness to explore policy innovation.

UPDATE 10/8/15: With Congressman McCarthy's decision not to run for Speaker, the Speakership is very much up for grabs.  McCarthy's withdrawal from the Speaker's race underlines the importance of imaginative policy reform.

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