Opinion: The ‘MAGA civil war’ that threatens to claim another conservative Republican

Editor’s Note: Douglas Heye, who served as the deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, is a GOP strategist. Follow him on Twitter @dougheye. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

In theory, no one can be more ideologically pure — more “Trumpy” as it were — than the leader of the House Freedom Caucus. The group counts among their members some of former President Donald Trump’s most fervent acolytes, who generally trip over themselves to stay in his good graces.

But as chairman of the Freedom Caucus Rep. Bob Good has learned, Trump doesn’t give points; he only takes them away.

Douglas Heye - Jeremy Freeman
Douglas Heye - Jeremy Freeman

As fervent a Trumpist as any, Good faces possible ouster from his Virginia congressional seat after Tuesday’s primary. His Republican challenger, John McGuire, had what may prove to be an insurmountable advantage — a Trump endorsement.

Good endorsed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis instead of Trump early in the presidential campaign. It was just one mistake, but a potentially career-ending one for him. It doesn’t matter that other than a brief period of allegiance to DeSantis, he was as loyal a foot soldier as Trump could have asked for. With his primary too close to call, Good’s predicament speaks to the misplaced values of the Caucus since its founding more than a decade ago.

Who wants to be ‘part of a team’?

Good’s primary goes to the very heart of what it means to be a conservative in the age of Trump. And the seeds of the problem were there from the very inception of the Freedom Caucus. His experience mirrors, in many ways, the recent history of House Republicans.

I didnt come to Washington to be part of a team.” Those were words spoken in 2011 by then-newly sworn-in Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, as documented by journalist Robert Draper in his book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do” — and they tell us a lot about the recent fractious history of House Republicans.

While not yet formalized with a name, those were the nascent days of the House Freedom Caucus. Labrador’s words made clear that for some, being a member of the House Republican Conference and mulling policy and proposing legislation was not nearly good enough. Being in power meant the ability to wield leverage and influence. Actual legislative accomplishments were secondary.

One example of this came in December 2012, 11 months into the “Tea Party Congress,” over the imminent expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. By law, taxes would rise if Congress did not act, and the only place Republicans were in control was the House. The Senate and White House were held by Democrats.

At the time, I was deputy chief of staff for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. It was the first of many times I heard Speaker John Boehner remind his colleagues they were “one-half of one-third of the government.” Getting even part of what we wanted would require compromise — and reasonable expectations.

The Republican leadership proposed what it boldly called “Plan B.” Marginal tax rates would remain the same for anyone making less than $1 million a year — which was the overwhelming majority of Americans — with some increases on those earning above that amount. By acting first, before the law changed, we felt we could jam Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama’s White House, winning both politically and legislatively.

Most conservatives, notably including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, supported the move. But there were some cracks. During what we called “DMM” (the “Daily Management Meeting” of top leadership members and limited staff), House Republican Conference chair Jeb Hensarling, acutely aware of the calendar but failing to take into account political reality, said, “I can’t vote ‘yes’ now. That would be raising taxes. But in early January, I’d be voting to cut taxes!”

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “We’re in trouble.”

Torpedoed by their own ideological purity

In the end, we didn’t have the votes to do the politically smart thing that coincided with what we believed our principles were. “Plan B” blew up in our faces. Taxes went up. We jammed ourselves. Not for the last time, a solution that would have been achievable and pragmatic was torpedoed by ideological purity.

This played out time and again. The year 2013 became what Republicans touted as the “Defund Obamacare” year — a legislative impossibility given that Obama was never going to agree to defunding his signature piece of legislation, and we had no leverage to force its repeal. (Once again, Boehner’s “one-half of one-third” maxim was at work.)

But in this politicized universe, accomplishments are secondary to performance — and demonstrating a willingness to fight. The minority within the majority did have the ability to bring things to a screeching halt.

Thus, we had what became widely known as “the Meadows Letter,” sent to Republican leadership by a new member of Congress, Rep. Mark Meadows (who years later would become Trump’s loyal chief of staff in the White House), urging them to defund Obamacare through any appropriations bill, including what’s known as a continuing resolution — a temporary measure keeping the government operational.

It did not matter that Meadows was asking for something that was legislatively impossible. He and others in the House who supported him were egged on by a few senators who had gotten into the mix, led by Sen. Ted Cruz.

Cruz had begun meeting with this small group of GOP rebels, soon to be the Freedom Caucus. Eventually, Republican House leadership gave in. We decided to let our members “touch the stove,” and learn in the process that they can get burned.

A press release from Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida praised the House for fighting hard and not giving in, but their statement essentially told lawmakers in the lower chamber “way to go House, but, gosh, there’s nothing WE can do in the Senate.”

That’s what sent House Republicans into a frenzy. Internecine fighting among Republicans broke out. Normally serene Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington state waved the Meadows letter in front of hard-core conservative lawmaker Louie Gohmert of Texas, yelling, “They told you to jump off a cliff and then abandoned you!” referring to the Senate Republican allies. Similar scenes played throughout the back of the House chamber.

But it was Republican infighting with no legislative purpose. It seemed that the only priority was to see who could be the most ideologically pure as a conservative. The great unraveling included a 16-day government shutdown. A continued downward spiral brought about by the fracturing of the party included Rep. Cantor’s primary loss, then Boehner’s ouster, then Paul Ryan’s. All for no coherent reason.

The lessons I’ve learned from those experiences is that the incentive structure had changed. To be a conservative “star” — to get on TV, invited to CPAC, to raise money and ultimately invited to Mar-a-Lago — means your incentives are to always push for more, regardless of how extreme or impossible. For a lot of these Freedom Caucus members, it’s not that nothing is ever good enough. It’s that nothing can ever be good enough. And everyone else is a sell-out.

There’s always a reason to hold out. Even — or especially — if it means causing multiple rounds of votes for a speaker and eventually voting to oust him. Notions of what conservatives mean have become blurred since the rise of Donald Trump. But adherence to all-things Trump is a cornerstone of what led to the fracturing of our party.

Trump is all-in for Good’s challenger, as anyone who’s seen McGuire’s “Trump endorsed” yard signs can attest (having been in the district in recent weeks, I can confirm that they are everywhere). Freedom Caucus member Rep. Warren Davidson has endorsed McGuire over his own caucus chairman. That just doesn’t happen. But it does in Trump’s Republican party.

In a CNN appearance on Tuesday, McGuire hit back on the tactic-first, accomplishment-maybe orientation of Good (and much of the Freedom Caucus). It was almost as if Labrador’s rebellion of 13 years ago had come full-circle. “He’s never passed a bill, never passed an amendment,” McGuire said in his very first sentence. Tellingly, McGuire then used the word “team” seven times in the first two and a half minutes of the interview.

This primary is being called a “MAGA civil war,” one that could have a seismic impact on both the Freedom Caucus and the House GOP. It is unclear if a House Freedom Caucus divided amongst itself can stand. Clearly, though, there are deep cracks in its foundation.

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