Conservative rebels frustrated after decadeslong fight for GOP control


The dysfunction in this GOP-controlled House might be new, but conservative lamentations that things don’t change much when Republicans take over from Democrats aren’t.

From the beginning of the modern American conservative movement, the focus was as much on defeating rivals within the Republican Party as beating Democrats. Even the titles of popular conservative books told this tale.

Phyllis Schlafly published A Choice, Not An Echo in 1964 because Republicans providing a choice rather than echoing Democrats was considered an open question. Pat Buchanan‘s 1975 Conservative Votes, Liberal Victories: Why the Right Has Failed appeared amid conservative discontent with federal policy after a Republican president’s 49-state landslide reelection. When Buchanan ran for president himself nearly 20 years later, his syndicated column was replaced in some newspapers by those of Samuel Francis, the deeply controversial scribe whose Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism appeared in paperback the year Republicans won the House for the first time in four decades.

Ronald Reagan challenged the sitting Republican president in 1976. He lost, but his supporters pushed the GOP platform in a more conservative direction, paving the way for his ultimate triumph four years later. 

“There are cynics who say that a party platform is something that no one bothers to read, and it doesn’t very often amount to much,” Reagan said at the convention that year. “Whether it is different this time than it has ever been before, I believe the Republican Party has a platform that is a banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale pastel shades.”

Contrary to popular belief, the bold colors vs. pale pastels contrast wasn’t a reference to Nikki Haley’s wardrobe but rather a call to be distinctively different from the Democrats.

“And a call to us to really be successful in communicating and reveal to the American people the difference between this platform and the platform of the opposing party, which is nothing but a revamp and a reissue and a rerunning of a late, late show of the thing that we have been hearing from them for the last 40 years,” Reagan continued.

Primary challenges like Reagan’s and outside pressure groups helped the Republicans’ late, late show get a rightward reboot over the next 40 years. So have internal factions like the Republican Study Committee and, eventually, the Freedom Caucus.

But conservatives’ inability to drive the current House Republican majority shows no less than the fact that we are still talking about Reagan and that their tactics have hit a dead end. (Reagan died himself 20 years ago next month.) The wall Republicans have finished building is not along the southern border but somewhere between their campaign promises and the U.S. Code.

More than 40 years ago, a Democratic-controlled House had a functional bipartisan conservative majority on some issues. A larger-than-usual Republican minority plus dozens of conservative Democrats, the Boll Weevils, could defy the liberal House speaker and pass the Reagan agenda. 

Fast forward to 2024 and an unusually large Democratic minority plus a big swath of Republicans can work with the conservative House speaker and pass parts of President Joe Biden’s agenda. It is not quite accurate to call the current state of affairs a bipartisan liberal majority, but unhappy conservatives do call it the “uniparty.”

Conservative Democrats are basically extinct — the last anti-abortion Democratic member of Congress was just indicted — and the Republicans’ razor-thin majority is dependent on the votes of members whose favorite colors are still pale pastels. 

What it means to be a conservative is in a state of flux as Republicans begin to move in a populist direction at odds with most of the party’s congressional leaders, donors, media voices, and public narrative since the 1980s. 

This was most evident in the rift over aid to Ukraine. The party’s most effective legislative tacticians are resistant to changes in its voters’ priorities. The avowed America Firsters have yet to demonstrate similar tactical prowess and may be exaggerating how much things have truly changed.

The only major leader who has sufficient credibility with the GOP base is former President Donald Trump. He is also the least ideological and most unpredictable Republican heavyweight, making him a suboptimal driver of a conservative realignment within the party.

House conservatives appear to have reached the end of what they can accomplish through the tail-that-wags-the-dog strategy of having a minority of the conference, sometimes only a handful of members, withhold support from the majority. They cannot elect a speaker on their own, and when they believe Republicans have elected one to their liking, they promptly find themselves at odds with that speaker.

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Even when conservatives are in the majority among the majority, they face a basic arithmetic problem. The majority of a one-seat majority is still a minority of the House as a whole. Democrats and the rest of the Republican conference have realized they together form a big majority. They first demonstrated this on Ukraine, then again in the second attempt to topple the House speaker in as many years.

The Hastert rule, under which a Republican House only takes up legislation backed by a majority of the conference, turned out to be much easier to repeal and replace than Obamacare.

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