Journalist Describes How The Freedom Caucus Hijacked Congress
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This was House Speaker John Boehner sounding cheerful as he walked up to the podium to announce his resignation three weeks ago.
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JOHN BOEHNER: Zippity-do-da, zippity-ay (ph). My, oh, my, what a wonderful day.
GROSS: Boehner spent years trying unsuccessfully trying to work with a small but intractable group of conservatives as speaker of the House, a job that our guest Rolling Stone writer Tim Dickinson calls basically impossible. It's hard to overstate just how strange the circumstance the Republicans in the House of Representatives find themselves in today. They hold the largest majority they've had since the 1920s, but they appear incapable of choosing a stable leadership team. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was expected to succeed Boehner, but last Friday, he surprised everyone and took himself out of the running for the post. At this point, no viable candidate has emerged, and the leadership crisis could have important consequences for the party, for Congress and the American economy.
At the heart of the paralysis gripping House Republicans is a group of around 40 conservative representatives who call themselves the Freedom Caucus. Tim Dickinson recently wrote about the Freedom Caucus. And he says their aggressive and uncompromising positions have made it all but impossible for mainstream Republican leaders to govern. Dickinson spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Tim Dickinson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start by helping us understand how 40 conservative Republicans can seem to hold so much authority when a majority of the Republican caucus might disagree with them.
TIM DICKINSON: The fundamental problem that House Republicans have is that there's two parties effectively inside the same conference. There's a Tea Party faction, and then there's an establishment Republican faction. And these 40 House conservatives - management of the House requires strict party line discipline. There are lots of procedural votes that require Republicans to stick together just to set up legislation on the House floor. And so that requires 218 Republican votes. And these house conservatives have realized that if they withhold their consent from these procedural votes - deny their speaker 218 votes by locking arms against him - they can stymie his agenda. They can prevent it, in large part, from even reaching the House floor.
DAVIES: So if I'm John Boehner, I've got 247 Republicans in my caucus, and I want to get a vote up to continue funding the government. But if 40 of those 247 say, no, we're not going to vote to bring it up, then I've only got 207. I'm short of the 218, and I'm frozen.
DICKINSON: You're stymied. You're stuck. And that is the essence of the power of the Freedom Caucus in Washington right now. That's how - this is - it's kind of a wonky, hard thing to understand, but these guys are sort of very devoted to the House rulebook and willing to use strange procedural tactics to force their will on the majority of their parties. The minority of the Republican conference - 40 guys - the House leadership refers to as extortion - You know, extortion of 40 guys over 200 members.
DAVIES: Right, and so in Boehner's case, there was about - a bunch of them signed an open letter committing to blocking funding of Planned Parenthood, right?
DAVIES: And so any budget bill that included that, they would not support. And under the caucus rules, that meant Boehner couldn't even get a budget that included funding for Planned Parenthood to the floor, where Democrats would have supported it. So he can't...
DICKINSON: That's right. Well, House Speaker has in his bag of tricks other parliamentary procedures that would allow him to do some end-arounds these rules votes, right? But Boehner's pickle - right? - was that these same number - 30 or 40 guys - are also the same number that could deny him the 218 votes he needs to hold onto power as speaker. And so the tight rope is that Boehner constantly needs to appease these guys just enough to get his agenda to the floor without so angering this right flank that they stage a coup.
DAVIES: Right. And so why did Boehner finally decide he'd had enough and say he was going to quit?
DICKINSON: The Freedom Caucus - 31 members had declared that they were going to oppose any budget bill. The continuing resolution is just a glide path kind of funding of government for several months - not a long resolution, just enough to keep the lights on so that there'd more time to negotiate a longer budget accord. And 31 members decided that they would not support any continuing resolution that had Planned Parenthood funding attached to it. And that signaled that John Boehner was going to have a very difficult time bringing that legislation to the floor, given the rule constraints that we were talking about before. And before the House break, there had been in a motion introduced to vacate the chair by a Republican from North Carolina. And so there...
DAVIES: That's a motion to remove him as speaker, right?
DICKINSON: To remove him as speaker. So there was a coup brewing and a needed resolution to fund the government. And the only one that could pass muster with House conservatives was one that defunded Planned Parenthood. And that was going to be a nonstarter with the president - wasn't going to pass the Senate. And so we were at another obstruction point where government was going to be shut down or government was going to keep going and these folks were going to fire John Boehner. And so John Boehner, essentially, sort of like a medieval saint, sort of decapitated himself and gave his head to these, you know, House conservatives to buy himself the sort of political capital that he needed to keep the lights on in Washington.
DAVIES: So he got a resolution passed, and the conservatives managed to let a resolution get to the floor which included the thing they opposed, which was funding for Planned Parenthood. He managed to get to do that by saying, OK, I will give up the speaker's chair.
DICKINSON: Yes. I mean, he gave them a huge victory. He said, look, you're going to get new leadership. You're not going to get your government shutdown, but you're going to get new leadership. I'm stepping out of the way now. And so that was a huge victory for these 40 Republicans to be able to go back to their constituents and say, look, we toppled the speaker. And they also had a sort of show vote that let them vote no on Planned Parenthood funding. So they sort of remained pure on that even as the government was funded ultimately through a complicated maneuver that allowed Planned Parenthood to be funded by the Senate, essentially.
DAVIES: So these 40 conservative Republicans use this leverage and essentially toppled Boehner from power. It was assumed that the majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, would be the next speaker. He suddenly withdraws his name - shocks everybody at a luncheon by saying, it's not going to be me. Was this a repeat? Was this the same group of 40 exacting another victory?
DICKINSON: It may be a little bit more complicated than that, but essentially, yes. This same group of 40 had endorsed Daniel Webster for speaker. And so if they all stuck together and voted for Webster, that would deny McCarthy the 218 votes that he needed to become speaker. There were other complications. There's some skeletons, I think, in McCarthy's closet - at least, rumors of skeletons in his closet - that also make a played a significant role in his decision not to stand for speaker. But it certainly was another flexing of the muscles of the House conservatives, and certainly, they claimed credit for it.
DAVIES: Let's talk about the caucus itself, which has exercised such enormous leverage over the past month. You write about them in a recent piece, and you note that it's - you wouldn't exactly call them a lunatic fringe. You said they're far from lunatic. Tell us about it.
DICKINSON: This is a - you know, so we think about the tea party crazies, and even some of their colleagues call them that. And these guys are not like that. They're sort of not these kooky fringe politicians. They are very smart - surprising number of Ph.D.'s. There's a former governor, Mark Sanford of South Carolina. By and large, these are guys who know how to tell it plain back home, but are (laughter) - some of them have, you know, Ph.D.'s in public administration and organizational theory economics.
And so these are very smart guys who are very principled who don't come at this as some sort of - they're incredibly sincere in their beliefs that Washington is spending too much money, that it is not listening to base conservatives and their concerns about immigration, their concerns about reproductive freedom - Planned Parenthood-type issues. These guys are committed. And so there's - you know, you meet them, and they're some of the nicest people I've met in Washington, frankly. And they're easy to talk to because they are very at ease with their principles and with what they're doing. They are just committed conservatives.
DAVIES: And a lot of ex-jocks among them, you say.
DICKINSON: Yes, that's right. That - I mean, they view politics very much as a football game, and you never know what's going to happen until you kick off.
DICKINSON: And so even though they are small in numbers - and they really - they talk about - they speak like ESPN football announcers. And they blast the Republican leaders for trickeration (ph) when they pull some sort of show vote or other parliamentary procedure. They - and they invoke Bill Belichick, and they say, you know, even Belichick doesn't script out the whole game. They just want to put the ball in motion on the off chance that there's a fumble on the other side or that they can get a long field goal kick. And they want to put points on the board or at least show their constituents that they're fighting. And on the other side, you have politicians like Mitch McConnell who look at politics very much like a chessboard. And so they see a position of disadvantage and don't see any real logic in pressing forward, putting a rook at risk that's just going to get eaten by a pawn for the sake of putting the president in check for a week or two. And so they would just rather not press forward on bad luck and just accept the state of play of the board as it is and wait for another opportunity.
DAVIES: But not the Freedom Caucus. They just - they bull rush.
DICKINSON: No, I know. They bull rush. And winning is subordinate to fighting for these guys.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tim Dickinson. He is a national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Tim Dickinson. He is a national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone. We're talking about the leadership crisis in Congress. Tim has recently written about the Freedom Caucus, which has exercised such leverage within the Republican Party.
Where did they come from, geographically?
DICKINSON: They're - surprising diversity. There's a certain Southern streak that runs through this, a lot of folks from the Carolinas. But there are actually 25 states represented in the nearly 40 members of the Freedom Caucus. And so that includes unlikely places, like New Jersey and Michigan and Colorado. Four of the 5 Republicans from Arizona are members of the conference.
DAVIES: And what are their districts like?
DICKINSON: They are middle-class districts, folks who are hanging onto the middle class but not really getting ahead. Their defining characteristic is race, frankly. They are about 83 percent white, which is about 10 percent more white on - than the median House district. They are very, very conservative. These are blood-red districts. On average, they vote 13 percent more Republican than the average House district. And that's a third, again, more conservative than the average Republican district.
DAVIES: You know, there's a feeling that a lot of people who are in districts which some would regard as gerrymandered to be strongly Republican, that their greatest fear is that, if they're not conservative enough, someone will come out in a Republican primary and knock them off - a challenge from the right. Do these guys worry about that?
DICKINSON: Absolutely. I mean, their political imperatives are very different from the national Republican Party at large. And so they are not concerned about making inroads with Hispanics or with independent women. Their biggest fear and, in fact - I mean, these are safe districts, landslide Republican districts. So their real only electoral peril comes from an even more extreme conservative on the right who comes out and calls them a squish on immigration or says that they're too close to big business or says that they are just, you know, too compromising and not standing firm for the change we need in Washington.
DAVIES: A squish - somebody who's just soft?
DICKINSON: Right, somebody who's too compromising, somebody who is compromised. These are Republican fighters, and they are representing the - you know, it's sort of hard to comprehend, but these guys are really voting their constituents. There's a very small number of Republicans who show up in these primary votes, and they are very principled and very determined to bring change to Washington. And so these guys are very responsive to their concerns. And they see themselves as being sent to Washington not to get along and not to climb the ranks, but to sort of throw themselves on the gears of government and bring things to a halt and start to bring change by any means necessary.
DAVIES: You write that the Heritage Foundation and its political arm, Heritage Action, are particularly influential. How?
DICKINSON: Well, Heritage used to be a moderate think tank, sort of a - it famously helped come up with the framework for what became Obamacare. But in recent years, Heritage has been taken over by Jim DeMint, who is a former firebrand senator from South Carolina, a politician in the Ted Cruz mold, for a point of reference. And Heritage Action is their activist arm, and they keep scorecards about right-wing purity, the metric of right-wing purity. And so they - they score various votes, yes or no. And politicians who run afoul of those metrics are quick to invite a primary challenge. It's something that people running against them can point to and say, look, this person only stood with Heritage, you know, 50 percent of the time.
DAVIES: Now, you know, congressional leaders have, in the past, had members that disagreed with them on issues. But they've managed to wrangle majority votes, in part because they have leverage, fund raising and earmarks, that kind of thing. Has that changed?
DICKINSON: There has been a real sea-change in Washington. It used to be that backbenchers fell in line because they were dependent on the party. They were - the parties were strong. They controlled fundraising. They controlled messaging. They came to your rescue if you were in trouble. They had earmarks to bring to your district. If you were, you know, out of step with your district on something, well, at least you'd be able to come home and say, look, we got this park or this bridge built. But out of the scandals of the Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff era, one of the good government reforms that John Boehner brought in was that he got rid of earmarks. And he lamented himself that that gave him no grease. So at the same time that the carrots go away, the sticks are less effective also because of the success, ironically, of the Citizens United decision. And so this - this brought in a flood of outside money, much of it ideologically motivated, that diminished the power of the centralized party. And so, if - the threat, traditionally was, get in line or we're going to withhold party funding from you. Well, now, a politician can go out and say, you know what? I'm going to start my own super PAC, and I'm going to say, John Boehner is standing against our shared interests. And money will come in.
DAVIES: So these guys have very conservative districts, and they worry about being challenged by someone more conservative. But you say they're not just cynical demagogues; they really believe what they're fighting for.
DICKINSON: I think that's very true. I mean, the guy who comes to mind is Justin Amash. And he's a congressman from Michigan. Grand Rapids is in his district. He is a young, principled, libertarian conservative. He's got a poster of Ayn Rand on his wall. He's got a poster of the Austrian economists, the sort of linchpin - intellectual linchpin of the libertarian movement. And back in the shutdown battle in 2013, I spoke to him. And I said, you know, how can you guys be so cavalier about bucking your leadership? And he said, why be for leadership? It's more popular in your district to be against leadership, so better just to vote your constituency. Now, in the past, somebody like that might've been turned out on his bottom in the next election. And indeed, Justin Amash was challenged by an establishment Republican in the 2014 election. But who comes to the rescue? Americans for Prosperity, affiliated with the Koch brothers - the sort of grassroots arm of the Koch brothers - comes in with $230,000 of outside spending. So here's a politician who votes his mind, votes no most of the time, votes his consistency, and when it comes time for an election that's tough, the cavalry is right there for him.
DAVIES: You were saying that the members of the Freedom Caucus are truly ideologically committed to their beliefs. They believe in what they're doing. And they also are representing at least the Republican primary voters and their views. Are there special interests that also fund them, contribute to their campaigns? And do you see special interests served in their votes in Congress?
DICKINSON: Yes, but not exactly in a corrupt way. I mean, there's a lot of ideological funding out there. James Carville once put to me that the billionaires that are out there are just as crazy as the activists. So the people who are putting up money for these ideological fights are motivated more by ideology than some special favor that they hope to get. And so, to the extent that these folks are getting funding from groups like Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, others, they are getting funding that's rewarding an ideological stance rather than a political stance that offers direct payback for political special interests. And I think the exception to that probably would be the fossil fuel interests, which tend to have a death-grip on the Republican Party writ large. And this group of politicians is not immune from that kind of pressure.
DAVIES: And what did they - what do they want and what do they get - the fossil fuel interests?
DICKINSON: Well, I mean, you just look at what Republicans stand for in terms of climate change, in terms of drill, baby, drill, in terms of preserving tax breaks for oil interests, natural gas interests, trying to open up offshore oil drilling. This is a special interest that gets its needs met by all factors - all factions of the Republican Party. And you can see that, to the extent that the Republican Conference is responsive to the interests of the Koch brothers, the Koch brothers spread their money around. And so John Boehner got $20,000 in campaign money from the Kochs. Jim Jordan got $10,000. So they spread their money around to all portions. They fund the Chamber of Commerce, and they also fund Heritage Action. So this is an agenda that gets teased throughout all corners of the Republican Conference.
DAVIES: By the way, we've referring to the Freedom Caucus, at times here, as guys and congressmen. Are they diverse at all in gender and race or ethnicity?
DICKINSON: They're very representative of their districts. And so, with the exception of a woman named Cynthia and a man named Raul, they are all white men.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Tim Dickinson, national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone. They'll talk more about the Freedom Caucus after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Tim Dickinson, a national affairs reporter for Rolling Stone, who's written an article about the 40 conservative House Republicans who call themselves the Freedom Caucus. They toppled House Speaker John Boehner, and Dickinson says their aggressive, uncompromising, socially conservative, antigovernment positions have made it all but impossible for mainstream Republican leaders to govern.
DAVIES: You say that the commander of the Freedom Caucus is Jim Jordan. He's a congressman from Ohio. In what sense is he their commander?
DICKINSON: Well, a little back story here. When the Tea Party arrived in Washington, these guys had been recruited by Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy and, to a lesser extent, Paul Ryan - those are the self-styled young guns, new leadership at the time of the Republican Party. And they had gone out and actively recruited all these very ideological conservatives. And the plan had been to bring them to Washington, sort of onboard them to a more establishment platform. And they sort of figured that once these guys got to Washington, they would fall in line as people normally do. But so many of these conservatives were very ideologically motivated and weren't really interested in what they perceived as a sort of old-guard agenda that had gotten Republicans so punished in the elections of 2006 and 2008. And they wanted to go a different direction. And Jim Jordan at the time was the leader of the Republican Study Committee, which was, at the time prior to the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative caucus in the House GOP conference. And Jim Jordan was the leader of this group and became sort of the shepherd of this discontent and recruited dozens of these guys to his side and repeatedly went to battle with Boehner over strategy and tactics in the House.
DAVIES: And when you talk to them, are they openly disdainful of the Republican leadership?
DICKINSON: Absolutely. Rep. Raul Labrador from Idaho is sort of the informal spokesperson for the House Freedom Caucus. And I spoke with him at length in his office earlier this summer. And he said he didn't, you know, care to be labeled an obstructionist because he wasn't there to vote his party. He was there to vote his constituents and spoke openly about how he thought Nancy Pelosi was a smarter leader than John Boehner or Kevin McCarthy.
DAVIES: And that doesn't get him in trouble with his local Republicans, or he just doesn't care?
DICKINSON: Well, again, this is the point. Leadership is very unpopular in these districts. And why is that? And I think it's helpful to understand that there's always been sort of a fundamental divide in the Republican Party between the concerns of the activist base and the concerns of what we could call the donor class. And so the activist base are motivated by a sense that government spending is out of control. They're motivated by social issues like abortion and immigration. And the donor class, by and large, they need things. They want government the function so that their interests can be tended to in Washington. And so the establishment trick has always been to rile up social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, come election time, on the issues of, you know, things are out of control in Washington. We're going to go fight on these abortion issues. And once they get to Washington, they sort of pivot more towards an agenda that favors national - international trade agreements and the pay of Medicare doctors and things that aren't very close to the concerns of the people who just elected them. And so that's a divide that these guys exploit because they are, in a very real sense, trying to hold their party's leadership - hold their feet to the fire of this activist base, expose them to the anger and to the ideology of the folks who bring Republicans a majority in Washington.
DAVIES: There's another figure in this who's not even a member of the House - Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. He wanders across the rotunda of the House chambers, doesn't he?
DICKINSON: Some Democrats refer to him as Speaker Cruz for his influence in helping to organize the Freedom Caucus and sort of collaborate with them. And he was a key figure in the 2013 shutdown battle over Obamacare, sort of whipping these House conservatives into a fury and helping provide sort of an intellectual framework for what they were doing.
DAVIES: And is he still active with the Freedom Caucus? Do they meet and strategize together?
DICKINSON: You know, interestingly, the presidential election has shaken things up a little bit. Most of these guys - a lot of these guys are actually in the Rand Paul camp. And so I think there's a little bit of a divided loyalty. But Ted Cruz certainly gives voice to their concerns. I mean, he went to the floor of the Senate and called his own majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the floor of the Senate. It was a real breach of sort of core conduct of the Senate - and accused him of running the chamber - running government by, for and of the lobbyist. And Ted Cruz speaks against a Washington cartel of career politicians and lobbyists who favor big business over the interest of voters. And I think that sort of helps clarify what this fight is about, fundamentally. The House conservatives and their - and Ted Cruz in the Senate, among others, are fighting to bring the core issues of the base conservative voter to Washington and do less of the show-votes against Obamacare and actually have a real fight about this stuff. Whether it wins or loses, the fight is more what matters to these people so they can go back and show their conservative voters that they are in Washington pulling out all the stops.
DAVIES: Even if the fight means shutting down the government or risking a default on American debt?
DICKINSON: And that's where it gets confusing because you'd think that, oh boy, this is a really cynical maneuver on their part; these folks just don't care. And if you get inside their heads a little bit, they see that America is going off a cliff eventually, that our spending is out of control, that we have no budget discipline in Washington, that something dramatic needs to change. And so they're willing to bring short-term pain now in part, as they see it, to prevent an even greater catastrophe down the line, if we keep spending the way that we are. And that sort of gets to their mindset that they need to do something really dramatic to change course in Washington. And creating obstruction is one way to force folks to deal with them and their priorities. And to be honest, I mean, we talk about how obstructionist they've been, but they've also been really effective. I mean, under a Democratic president, conservatives have extracted $2 trillion in avoided spending over the next 10 years, which is really quite extraordinary. I mean, this is - this is $2 trillion of spending - government spending that's not going to happen because of the kind of obstructionism that we've been talking about.
DAVIES: There are conservative Republicans in Congress that are less, you know, determined and conservative than the Freedom Caucus. Some might call them moderates. One is Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who's been speaking out. He has a group a called the Tuesday Group. What is their perspective?
DICKINSON: So Charlie Dent leads the Tuesday Group, which is a group of about 50 moderates in the House. And he calls them his branch of the Republican Party, the governance wing of the party. And these are folks who are determined to keep the lights on in Washington, to keep the gears of governing moving forward and who are open to sort of an old-fashioned Washington deal where both sides come away with something that they can crow about to their constituents. So it's not a zero-sum game. It's not, you're either with us or against, but we can cut a deal.
DAVIES: The Freedom Caucus has lost a couple of members lately. One of them, Tom McClintock of California, wrote an open letter. What did he say?
DICKINSON: Well, McClintock's point was that the House Freedom Caucus and their obstructionism was forcing John Boehner to go to his left, to seek out help from Nancy Pelosi to advance his agenda, that these guys were so unflinching and unreasonable that it actually, instead of advancing a conservative agenda, made that agenda less possible because it forced the Republican speaker to join with Democrats to get things done. And that has a moderating influence on the legislation that results.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tim Dickinson. He's a national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone. We'll be back in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Tim Dickinson. He's a national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone. We're talking about the leadership crisis in Congress. Dickinson recently wrote about the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives which has exercised enormous leverage in Congress recently.
So let's talk about what's going to happen now. I mean, Boehner has said he will leave. Kevin McCarthy has taken himself out of the running. And one choice that a lot of people liked was Paul Ryan, who is the - of Wisconsin, who was the party's nominee for vice president in 2012. He says he doesn't want it. Why wouldn't he want to be the Speaker of the House?
DICKINSON: I guess that I would turn the question around. Why would anyone want to be the speaker of this House? It's basically an impossible job. And Paul Ryan, I think, would be open to this job if it were that the House Freedom Caucus said, ah, Paul Ryan, he's the guy we've been waiting for, we're willing to do exactly what Paul Ryan says. But Paul Ryan can't herd these cats. They agree with him very strongly on the budget. That's the one thing that sort of unites all Republicans in the House, is the Ryan budget. And that's why Ryan is looked to as sort of the savior in these days. But Paul Ryan is quite moderate, as it goes in the Republican conference, on immigration. And he was the one who cut, with Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, a deal to - as the House conservatives see it - bust the budget caps of sequestration. And so in some way, Paul Ryan is seen as compromised by this group, as not conservative enough.
DAVIES: So are we in a circumstance here where these 40 members, who are determined to exercise their leverage, are essentially going to have a veto over the next Speaker?
DICKINSON: It very well could come down to that. I mean, I think they were in the process of exercising that veto power over Kevin McCarthy when he removed himself from consideration. Charlie Dent said to me that they can't get 218 votes for a bathroom break. So how exactly these folks are going to get 218 votes for a consensus Speaker candidate is kind of hard to fathom. And ironically, this gives John Boehner a longer exit runway. He is now - John Boehner is a special politician. He's the son of a bar-back who's most at ease in a country club. And so he has long been able to bridge these sort of two very disparate groups of Republicans and speak the language of both of them. And now he as an opportunity, I think, and some political capital to play with, that he's the last guy standing and he wants to leave but they won't let them. And he might actually be able to get a few things done that sort of clear the minefield going forward into 2016.
DAVIES: You know, if the dilemma for establishment Republicans is that they have this huge majority in Congress but are stymied by 40 determined conservatives - essentially, in the words of one congressperson, blackmailing the 200 others, exercising their will - the obvious solution to that is for mainstream Republicans to make an alliance with 50 moderate Democrats to elect a new Speaker and move legislation. Why doesn't that happen? That would marginalize the most extreme of the party.
DICKINSON: It would, but I think you need to understand, too, that it's not just these 40 guys. There's a larger orbit of folks who are sympathetic to them or at least responsive to the same forces that they are. And so when these House conservatives, these 40 naysayers, these obstructionists, make a move, it's very difficult for about another hundred or so House Republicans to disobey that, to get out of step with that becausethese folks have the mantle of true conservatism. These folks have the mantle of being most responsive to the voters. And so it would be an act of real political bravery, I think, for House Republicans to say, you know, enough of this, we're going to side with Democrats. I mean, that's - given the polarization that's happening in America, that's a really tough sell, come election time, to say, you know what, folks, I know I'm a Republican, a conservative Republican. I told you I would overturn Obamacare and constrain government spending, but for the past couple years now I've been working with Nancy Pelosi and Democrats to move legislation forward. That, politically, is a very tough sell.
DAVIES: Right, and that scenario also assumes the Democrats would be willing to join.
DICKINSON: Also true, I mean, Nancy Pelosi runs the Democratic conference without much of this kind of division, and right now they are very committed to letting Republicans kind of hang themselves - letting Republicans, you know, stew in their own juices, I guess, is one way to put it. So there doesn't seem to be a real willingness right now to help bail out Republicans from the pickle that they find themselves in.
DAVIES: You know, you wrote in your piece recently that when Boehner announced his departure you said he would be remembered for his willingness to make himself look like a feckless fool, often for weeks on end, to prevent his nihilistic crew from wreaking havoc. You want to explain what you mean by that?
DICKINSON: I think you could look at the 2013 shutdown battle. And Boehner had tried to appease House conservatives over Obamacare with 40-some odd votes to let them express their displeasure with the president's healthcare law, and it just wasn't putting out the fire. And there was an upwelling of emotion and concern in the conference. And these folks were determined to shut down government. And they were also toying with the idea of letting the federal government default. And Boehner made the calculation that it was going to be less destructive to let them shut down government for a couple of weeks, burn out that passion and then come in with Democratic support and restart government and, at the same time, raise the debt ceiling and remove that threat of default which would have been catastrophic for America. This was not a good situation, it was not - it cost the American economy $24 billion to shut down the government. But it avoided a larger problem. And so I think Boehner, as an institutionalist, was determined to do his best to keep the gears of government moving, and to do as little damage as possible, given the fact that he had on his right flank a group of folks who were willing to do really destructive things. And so I think Boehner will be remembered as the guy who kept the lid on that boiling plot to the extent that I don't think we even really appreciated until now his leaving because now we see this sort of open warfare within the party, this open division and sort of these unbridgeable divides, and you start to appreciate what John Boehner was up against and what he was able to accomplish in spite of it.
DAVIES: Well, you're going to have an interesting job the next few months. Tim Dickinson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DICKINSON: It's really been a pleasure, thank you.
GROSS: Tim Dickinson is a national affairs correspondent for Rolling Stone, where his article on the Freedom Caucus was published. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After we take a short break, rock historian Ed Ward will review recent reissues of gospel music. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.