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August 26, 2013 9:45 AM House Republican Leaders Are Always Squishes

By Jonathan Bernstein

There’s a lot of good talk about the GOP House leadership’s current maybe-plan to trade in the possibility of shutting down the government over Obamacare for the threat of defaulting the government over Obamacare. Regardless of how it plays out, it occurs to me that there may be an Iron Law of Politics: House Republican Leaders Are Always Squishes.

John Boehner, of course, is a well-known traitor to true conservatives. He replaced Denny Hastert, who mostly was a blank slate for most people…at any rate, by the end of his tenure as Speaker, conservatives were quite unhappy with the drift of the House towards earmarks and spending.

Hastert replaced Newt Gingrich, who is sort of an unusual case; his demise probably had more to do with his overly centralized style as Speaker than about his lack of fidelity to conservative ideas. But conservatives never trusted him (and with good reason).

Gingrich replaced Bob Michel, who was clearly chased out as Minority Leader because he was insufficiently conservative and confrontational.

I’m not aware of any significant conservative action against John Rhodes, who preceded Michel. Before Rhodes was Gerald Ford, who everyone seemed to have liked.

Ford defeated Charles Halleck. According to one source I have (Richard Reeves’ biography of Ford), the confrontation was along age, and not ideological lines…Halleck wasn’t seen as a squish, or not sufficiently conservative, but just out of touch.

Halleck, however, ousted Joe Martin because Martin wasn’t aggressive enough.

OK, that’s the basic outline. The idea here isn’t just about who is more conservative; it’s a particular complaint that the current leader is always too accommodating of liberals, too ensconced in the “Washington” culture, not sufficiently confrontational, and other such complaints.

Hmmm…does that make an Iron Law? I’m mostly working from memory here. Hey, House historians! Am I getting these transitions right? The clear cases I see on transitions are Martin/Halleck, Michel/Newt, and Hastert/Boehner, with the current unhappiness with Boehner also a very good fit. I don’t really know or remember enough about the pre-Michel leaders, though. I’m comfortable cutting it off with Martin, though.

Granted: at all times in every party, there are going to be moderates and hardliners, and the hardliners are going to find the leaders to be too moderate; that’s the nature of an ideological spectrum, at least to the extent that spectrum is real. But I don’t really see a similar dynamic happening with the other three Congressional leadership chains, especially within the House and Senate. Tom Foley might fit as someone regarded as insufficiently confrontational. There’s a bit of that in the Senate, but I think it’s mostly about complaints from outside interest groups and party actors about Howard Baker, Bob Dole, and Trent Lott. I don’t think many Republican Senators joined in. And it’s important that the complaints are regularly personal; there are (often? usually? always?) a group within the House who believe that Republicans would get much better outcomes with tougher, more confrontational leadership.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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