The simple answer: fear.
Members of Congress who were too afraid to take a stand let fringe elements engage in destructive tactics that crippled the government. Furious at this completely unnecessary and entirely avoidable situation, I ran my mouth for days, lamenting the failure of Congress to perform its most basic duty – to fund government and keep it open.
I thought Boehner had summoned me to the proverbial principal’s office for my public statements on the shutdown and was setting me up for a bashing, but that never came. Instead, Boehner, who had also summoned four other House GOP colleagues to the meeting, started the conversation almost apologetically, trying to explain his thinking and rationale for pursuing tactics and seeking concessions that all the world knew would be rejected by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Understandably, Boehner said he wanted to break up the members who tormented him by insisting on shutting down the government to undo Obamacare funding. The problem with this strategy, of course, was the collateral damage to swing district members who were relentlessly blamed and pounded by their constituents during the ongoing shutdown.
Still, Boehner said it was the remaining 109 or so that concerned him the most. He said those members represented relatively safe and vulnerable GOP seats to major challengers. Depending on the issue, this group could be pulled in either direction – and during the government shutdown, many of them had reluctantly followed the fringe. While Boehner didn’t want the shutdown himself, he was sympathetic to this third group, explaining that they were particularly vulnerable to attacks and major challenges from the right.
I didn’t react well to that last comment. I immediately objected and fired back saying, “Why are these members’ primaries more important than mine?” As a representative of a swing neighborhood and accustomed to being hammered by opponents left and right, I had little patience or sympathy for members of this group. I went on to say, “Tell them to raise a bunch of campaign money, do some good research on the opposition, and then rip your opponent’s lungs out. is no way to deal with a primary challenger.” When I finished that rant, Ohio Congressman Pat Tiberi, who was among Boehner’s closest confidants in the House, said, “John, I hope you heard that.”
Far too many Republicans serve in Congress under a constant cloud of fear. Let’s call them the Fear Caucus. This group of honest men and women are unfortunately too preoccupied with their own position to say publicly what they think of the conduct, temperament and fitness for office of the former president. What McCarthy said in exasperation about Trump’s responsibility for the Capitol riot likely reflects the sentiments of the majority of House and Senate Republicans. But what these Republicans are willing to say in public is too often a different story.
These members must find the courage to take a stand and call out radical elements within the party like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz and a few others who have made extreme and inflammatory comments part of their political brand. GOP members of the Fear Caucus also need to overcome their anxieties and speak out about former President Trump, especially regarding the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Silence empowers only the fringe elements of the GOP, and fear makes even the most essential governance, such as raising the debt ceiling or passing necessary funding bills, extraordinarily difficult. Standing aside and hoping “YES” while voting “NO” is not what equates to a profile of courage. Worse still, governing out of fear is often rewarded with understandable voter skepticism and can lead to what those members seek most to avoid: a primary challenge from the right.
While serving in Congress, I believed that I should be able to speak publicly about everything I said behind the closed doors of House Republican Conference meetings and defend at home what I said to my constituents.
Over the past decade, fringe elements within the party have increasingly dominated the GOP narrative. This problem will persist unless the honest people of the Republican Party rise up, speak out, and lead from a position of strength instead of fear. And the way to defeat the fringe elements that incite and launch primaries is to fight them. Full stop.
Trump remains a dangerous political figure, despite his diminishing stature. But he and the extremists are outnumbered. The more good Republicans speak out publicly against extremism, the more likely Trump’s grip on the GOP is to be broken. It’s called leadership, and it’s liberating.
Surely it is better to cower in fear.