If Republicans take over both houses of Congress this fall, some observers have said, it’s an opportunity for the GOP to “show they can govern,” and GOP leaders like Sen. John Cornyn insist that Republicans will be “responsible adults” if they win.
But it’s not up to GOP leadership. It’s up to the Apocalypse Caucus.
Since the GOP takeover of the House in 2010, the pattern has become depressingly familiar: policy after policy getting dragged to the right, totally unnecessary crises and last-minute near-crises, performative belligerence as an end in itself, all driven by a large and increasingly powerful right fringe in the U.S. House.
Sahil Kapur’s in-depth profile of Rep. Steve King, one of the loudest voices of this fringe, shows how the hard right wields power over the Republican Party. King intentionally inflates the temperature on his signature issue, immigration, taking a hardline position and forcing other Republicans to meet him there. It reflects the worst instincts of conservative base voters and magnifies them. This funhouse-mirror version of conservatism, loud and angry, becomes the new standard that primary voters demand.
When 2015 rolls around, Steve King is going to have a lot more company. As the Republican House majority looks to add seats, both the House and the GOP caucus will shift rightward. The self-parodying display of conservatism required in red-district primary contests has resulted in a striking new crop of future members for the Apocalypse Caucus, reports Jonathan Weisman:
in at least a dozen safe or largely safe Republican House districts where more mild-mannered Republicans are exiting, their likely replacements will pull the party to the right, a move likely to increase division in an already polarized Congress.
The new class of Republicans will join an already-large faction of extreme conservatives in the House, representing districts that are out of step with the rest of the country. Reporting on the members who drove last year’s government shutdown, Ryan Lizza notes that:
The ability of eighty members of the House of Representatives to push the Republican Party into a strategic course that is condemned by the party’s top strategists is a historical oddity….these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.
Why does the hard right edge of the GOP have such sway over national politics? Because Speaker John Boehner depends on them. He needs their votes to hold on to the gavel, and he needs to craft legislation to appeal to enough of them so he doesn’t need to rely on Democratic votes to pass bills. The Apocalypse Caucus sets the agenda.
The right wing of the GOP is energized by a wide network of donors, activist groups and — especially — media outlets, in which conservative politicians compete for attention, votes and dollars by trying to out-right-wing each other. There’s essentially no such thing as a Republican moderate any more, since in order to get to November, any Republican needs to get through this gauntlet.
Ed Kilgore notes how this dynamic led to the famous “47 percent” video that damaged Mitt Romney in 2012:
“My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man,” Romney said. “If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man.”
Throughout the primaries he was always in effect talking to some angry if not entirely coherent Republican voter or donor or media opinion-leader, and trying to “reflect back” to their POV, which Mitt did not entirely share but had to take very, very seriously. It’s an almost impossible habit to break, and at a crucial moment, he couldn’t.
The Apocalypse Caucus of the House, though, aren’t just panderers like Romney. They’re true believers.
And over the weekend, the true believers bestowed a crown on one of their favorite leaders. For the second time, Sen. Ted Cruz topped the straw poll at the Values Voter Summit.
Cruz, who helped to organize the House’s Apocalypse Caucus to shut down the government last year, would have an even bigger influence if Republicans took over the Senate. Just as Steve King and his allies hold the margin of victory in Boehner’s House, Cruz would be in a position to command a Republican Senate, holding the leash on ostensible “mainstream” Republican leaders like his home-state colleague. In this hypothetical but painfully-plausible majority, he’d be joined by new Senators who came up through the right-wing primary process and, in many cases, through the Apocalypse Caucus-driven House.
With Cruz aiming his sights at a 2016 presidential run, one where money, public attention and volunteer support will be looking for the rightmost candidate, he’ll have a strong incentive to play a role in the Senate like the one Steve King plays in the House today. (And the road to a 2016 Republican nomination, of course, runs through Iowa, Steve King’s home base.)
What does a Republican-controlled Congress look like in 2015? If you ask John Cornyn, it looks like responsible adults governing. But of course, you shouldn’t listen to John Cornyn. A Republican Congress looks like Steve King and Ted Cruz: belligerent, loud and willing to smash. It looks like the Apocalypse Caucus.