The Twilight Zone World in Which it is Difficult to Elevate Paul Ryan as House Speaker

What kind of Twilight Zone political world are we living in which Paul Ryan, an accomplished, respected, wonkish, intelligent, and virtuous man is not deemed worthy to serve as Speaker of the House by a small but vocal and obstructive portion of the Republican wing of Congress? What erratic things must be going on where an ideologically sound man such as Ryan reluctantly steps into the ring and has to set out conditions for serving (conditions that I view as entirely within reason and to ensure he is not being set up to fail by a recalcitrant and needlessly obstructive backbench) for one of the most powerful and traditionally respected positions in the American government? The Speaker of the House is third in line to become President, and nobody really wants the job. That should tell us something about the current state of the dysfunction in the party that I think many of us actually expect to lead under the divided government that Americans seem fond of.

In case it is not clear, I believe Ryan would make a wonderful Speaker of the House. I thought he would have made a great Vice President, and it would have been a good thing to put him on a path to becoming a Presidential candidate. He is a fine statesmen with the type of high-minded character we should want in individual in higher office, whether of the right or left bent.

Alas, in an era of protected and gerrymandered uncompetitive districts coupled with a restive population as a result of years of economic malaise and administrative mismanagement (in both the executive and legislative branches), it seems that what a substantial portion of the population is reduced to clamoring for their representative to be “a fighter,” whatever the term actually means and even if it ends in nihilistic demagoguery and ignominious defeat that results in nothing getting truly accomplished. What used to be valued traits in possessing the ability to engage in thoughtful policy crafting coupled with the ability to compromise and find ways to move a conservative agenda forward, even if in increments, has given way to fighting for fighting sake, even if the end result of failure is assured.

The Freedom Caucus group of 40 or so representatives railing against John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, and now Paul Ryan for not taking enough bold stances throughout the duration of the Obama administration is a fight about style and tactics and not a fight over policy substance. It must be clear that most on the right side of the political divide agree on most of the philosophical principles. All of these aforementioned men have proven careers promulgating and advancing conservative policy. I imagine their scorecards of actually getting beneficial laws passed eclipse by a wide margin their detractors in the Freedom Caucus, whose relative youth and espousal of a forceful and vocal form of obstruction render them largely ineffective parvenus given the Democratic control over the executive branch.

Against this backdrop is the immutable force of the U.S. Constitution and the intent of the framers of that venerable document as laid out extensively by John Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in The Federalist Papers. Advancing legislation and decisions slowly, incrementally and based on consensus was precisely what the Founders had in mind when crafting the separation of powers across branches of government as well as the separation of power fostered in a federalist system of state and central government. Thus, the critique of the Freedom Caucus of the  incremental and compromising approach is ultimately a critique leveled and squarely aimed at James Madison and the other framers of our Constitution. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, would describe the potential of the majority to ride roughshod over the rights of minorities (defined in this case as those who did not currently hold the levers of government) as the “tyranny of the majority.” As a bulwark against this fear of coercive power being enacted by an entrenched and tyrannical majority, the Founders deliberately constructed a government system in which advancing legislation quickly by design is in fact difficult to do. The guiding implicit principle behind this is that the minority opinions of today can quickly become the majority opinions of tomorrow and hence the framers of the constitution deliberately constructed a system such that the potential whims of the current day would not be legislated until they were a proven and sustainable desire of the people. This may harm us in the short-run as individuals and as interest groups when it comes to getting things done efficiently, but it also protects the rule of law and from poor decisions being made hastily for the sake of expediency and for what is currently popular at the time. The Founders greatly favored slow change, overwhelming support for ideas, and compromise. As a result, the founders expected statesmen to engage in the proposing of ideas and to win over the population through the strength of an idea and the strength of an argument rather than a war using arcane legislative procedural processes that confound and anger the public at large.

The final point I would make is that if the Freedom Caucus can’t put forward a viable candidate on their own (which they can’t) then it is time to support a leader that they philosophically agree with on substance, and start spending their time making the case to the American public why they need to elect a Republican for President in order to truly enact the reform that they want to enact rather than wasting their energies on internecine fratricide. To adapt an old military adage I am rather fond of: either lead, follow or get out of the way.


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