Conservative congressmen don't question House Speaker John Boehner's dedication to the cause. But as chaos overtakes GOP efforts to prevent a Jan. 1 tax hike, members do have doubts about his effectiveness.
Here's the latest turn of events:
Over the summer, House Republicans passed a bill extending the Bush-era tax rates, which are set to expire, resulting in higher rates Jan. 1. That was Boehner's Plan A.
Senate Democrats said no, and so Boehner rolled out Plan B: extend current rates for all income below $1 million, and rein in Social Security spending.
Democrats said no again. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Plan B would never pass his chamber. Obama said he would veto it because it didn't raise taxes on enough people and it tinkered with Social Security.
Conservatives had doubts, too: Does it count as hiking taxes if you vote for a bill extending some tax rates but not others? On Thursday night, Boehner realized he didn't have enough votes to pass Plan B, and so he sent Congress home for Christmas.
The GOP criticism of Boehner:
Strategically, why did Boehner push Plan B? Before proposing it, he surely knew Plan B would not become law. It was not intended to become law, it was intended to make Obama and Reid look bad. Republican leaders hoped to send a message: See, we passed a compromise to avert the fiscal cliff, but Democrats were so intransigent that they killed it!
If tax rates went up for everyone on Jan. 1, Republicans hoped Obama and Reid would get the blame. Fearing this fallout, Democrats might compromise.
But that strategy requires media cooperation. If you want to create the impression that Democrats are to blame for an impasse, you need the major media to tell that story. In most regions of the mainstream media, though, it is dogma that Republicans are the ones who make unreasonable demands, and that Republicans are the ones who are intransigent. If Jan. 1 came and went without a deal on taxes, it's predictable the media would mostly blame Republicans, no matter what led up to it.
Within the context of this dubious strategy, Republican members also question leadership's tactics.
One charge: Leadership never worked with members in crafting Plan B. "We walked into conference" on Monday, one Republican member told me, "and we were told, 'Here it is. Here's what we're going to do.' "
"I don't think they ever really gave members an opportunity to weigh in," one House chief of staff told me. One Boehner ally suggested that rather than reach out to the rank and file, Boehner used Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan as "proxies," to gauge conservative sentiment.
The conservative Republican Study Committee wanted a floor vote, during consideration of Plan B, on an amendment to permanently extend all Bush tax rates. Boehner quashed that idea.
Throughout the week, conservatives around Washington publicly wrestled with Boehner's proposal. The Washington Examiner's editorial page backed it. Leading conservative blogger Erick Erickson opposed it. Americans for Tax Reform said Plan B didn't violate its Taxpayer Protection Pledge. The Club for Growth came out against it. FreedomWorks supported it, but then on Thursday opposed it.
The conundrum: Did a vote for Plan B, with its implicit tax hike on millionaires, constitute a vote for higher taxes? Appearances mattered more than reality to some members: Would conservative bloggers and radio hosts portray Plan B supporters as tax hikers?
On Capitol Hill, resistance to Plan B "was much broader than a Tea Party thing," one member told me. "Folks who you or I would never call fiscal conservatives" had doubts about the plan. Another congressman agreed, "It wasn't just the hard-core conservatives" opposing the plan.
Amid all this hesitation, the party leadership "didn't lay the groundwork to say this wasn't a tax cut," a congressman told me.
The effort to whip votes, obviously, was inadequate. "Tom DeLay would have had an ongoing whip operation from Monday morning until Christmas Eve if necessary," a longtime Hill staffer said.
Today's GOP whip operation, under Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, is clearly weaker than it was last time Republicans held the House. Is it Boehner's or McCarthy's fault? Or is it just the changed nature of the party, post-Tea Party?
One conservative member told me Boehner and McCarthy lost "primarily because Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh ... stirred opposition to it."
Some grassroots conservatives call Boehner a "squish" and question his conservative convictions. Conservative congressmen don't buy this. They believe Boehner always fights for the most conservative outcome attainable. But maybe he doesn't always do so effectively.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.