For good reason, conservatives lamented the fact that House Republicans on Thursday voted to replace Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., as majority leader with his hand picked successor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Cantor suffered a shocking defeat in the primary that was seen as a backlash against a leadership that had been out of touch with its voters, yet McCarthy's record is further to the left of Cantor and he's just as cozy with corporate special interests.
The election of Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., as the whip offered little consolation to frustrated conservatives.
But not all of the blame for the plight of conservatives can be laid at the feet of out-of-touch leaders. House conservatives should also be held responsible.
It’s true that as the existing whip, McCarthy, had a built in advantage in a leadership race, especially given that elections were held within a mere eight days of Cantor announcing he would step aside.
But House conservatives would have been better positioned to mount a serious challenge if they had a pre-existing strategy to take over leadership in the event that an opportunity presented itself.
Instead, while McCarthy mobilized support, conservatives stumbled around, hoping that Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, would throw his hat in the ring, until eventually Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, made a late entry that was doomed from the start.
If you really want to rile up conservative activists, tell them that House Republican leaders are constrained by the fact that Democrats are in control of the Senate and the White House. To conservatives, these are just excuses from weak-kneed leaders like McCarthy, Cantor, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who are afraid to fight.
But couldn’t the same argument that conservatives use to criticize the House leadership’s inability to bring the fight to Democrats be applied to House conservatives’ inability to fight leadership?
House conservatives constantly complain to grassroots conservatives about how their efforts to advance a conservative agenda are being thwarted by leaders loyal to the GOP establishment - yet time and again, they fail to mount a serious challenge to change leadership.
The cynical view is that the failure of House conservatives to mount a serious leadership challenge shows that they don’t really want to lead, because the current dynamic serves their purposes a lot better.
The way things have gone in major legislative battles over the past several years (such as with the debt ceiling, government funding bills, and the “fiscal cliff” tax deal) is that House conservatives have consistently voted against compromises. This has led House leadership to cut deals that can pass the House with the help of Democratic support.
This dynamic has allowed House conservatives to maintain a ruse. They can go back to their constituents and perpetuate the myth of themselves as brave freedom fighters standing up for conservative principles against a wobbly GOP leadership that’s gone native in the Washington swamp. Meanwhile, because House leadership cut deals, House conservatives didn’t have to deal with the consequences of bond markets freaking out because Congress never raised the debt limit, or of a taxpayer backlash because rates went up on all income levels once all of the Bush tax cuts expired.
Conservative House members would no longer have it so easy if staunch conservatives were to seize control of House leadership. So, at the end of the day, they’re perfectly happy with the Boehner-McCarthy team.
If House conservatives want to change this perception and disprove the cynics, they should spend the coming months preparing a strategy to topple leadership after the new House class is elected this November.
If they cannot at least mount a credible challenge, conservative activists should stop giving them a free pass.