A Congressional Rebel’s Guide to ‘Hating Leadership’

A Congressional Rebel’s Guide to ‘Hating Leadership’

Later today, two House members – Louie Gohmert of Texas and Ted Yoho of Florida – are expected to challenge John Boehner as Speaker of the House. Although the effort is expected to fail, it continues an ongoing moral and intellectual crisis on the right about proper conservative behavior that merits further review.

Having staffed a successful leadership challenge in 1998 – or “purge” as it was called by the Washington Post – I’m sympathetic to conservatives who want bold and effective leadership in Congress. Holding leadership accountable and pushing them as far to the right as possible are worthy causes that I was proud to be associated with as an aide to Tom Coburn. In fact, we wrote a book about those lessons in 2003 called Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders.

Incidentally, in 1998 the rebels not only took down the Speaker, Newt Gingrich, but also the slick, chain-smoking, then-Republican Conference Chair named John Boehner (J.C. Watts of Oklahoma replaced Boehner). Steve Largent of Oklahoma also took on Dick Armey as Majority Leader and forced a three-ballot vote, which Largent eventually lost 127 to 95. It was a leadership challenge on a scale and scope not seen since. Three out of four leaders were challenged, and two out of four were disposed. Only Tom DeLay of Texas escaped unscathed.

In contrast, today’s effort gives rebellion a bad name. It is tepid, poorly planned and pretends to be conservative but is conventional Washington politics and posturing at its worst. For conservatives who are committed to ‘hating leadership’ effectively and constructively here are a few lessons to consider from past efforts that failed and succeeded:


Don’t publicly announce your intent

(Reps. Louie Gohmert, left, and Ted Yoho are mounting a tepid and poorly planned “coup” against Speaker Boehner)

In a coup, the appropriate time to reveal yourself to your target is after they are defeated. The moment Louie Gohmert announced his intention to challenge Boehner on national television he trivialized his own candidacy and legitimate conservative critiques of Boehner’s leadership. Sure, we get that John Boehner isn’t popular (who is?) but did the American people spend the holidays clamoring for a Gohmert speakership?

The need for secrecy and subtly is a lesson the rebels learned the hard way in the 1990s. In 1997, Coburn and other conservatives were troubled by Gingrich’s erratic and self-destructive behavior so they began plotting a surprise move in which Gingrich would be deposed and immediately replaced with the conservative and immensely talented Bill Paxon of New York. When then-Majority Leader Dick Armey caught wind of the plan through an accidental leak and realized the coup plotters wanted Paxon, and not he, to become the next Speaker, Armey went to Gingrich and scuttled the plan.

The rebels wouldn’t repeat their mistake. Throughout 1998, conservatives pushed Gingrich to adopt a more positive and propositional platform. In one conference meeting, Gingrich told Coburn to essentially mind his own business and informed him that Clinton’s indiscretions and missteps had “already motivated the base for us” and that it was smart politics to coast. Everyone expected Republicans to gain seats, which traditionally happened in the mid-term of a president’s final term (as in 2014). Yet, Republicans lost seats in 1998, reducing their majority to six seats.  

With fewer votes needed to depose Gingrich, the rebels were ready to act decisively. This time, they operated with greater secrecy and stealth. I was asked by Coburn to “check out” and “confirm” their assumptions about how the Speaker was chosen (they needed to confirm the Speaker was chosen by a majority of all members, which meant only six Republicans could block Newt from winning). I assumed I was handling assassins’ figurative daggers but I wasn’t briefed on the entire plot nor did I share what I suspected with anyone. Very few members and fewer staff had any clue about what was coming.


If you’re going to kill the king use overwhelming force, or don’t try

(Newt Gingrich was ousted as House Speaker after a tumultuous tenure and the underwhelming midterm in 1998)

Again, in 1997 and 1998 the coup plotters understood that they had to have solid commitments to overthrow Newt before they acted. In 1997, the process proved too complex. In 1998, with a narrow majority of six members all it took was a handful to stand together. That’s precisely what happened. Shortly after the disastrous 1998 elections a small band of conservatives told Newt they would not support him under any circumstance, even if they elected Dick Gephardt as Speaker.  

An infuriated and defeated Gingrich lashed out at the “cannibals” in the Republican Party but the mission was a success. It was hardly the Ides of March, but like Julius Caesar’s assassins, the rebels of 1998 provided their target with no chance of escape.

The odds of another peaceful coup happening again in American politics are slimmer in today’s age of social media-enabled narcissistic exhibitionism #plottingacouptoday. Getting six members to coordinate in 1998 was difficult. Good luck getting 29 politicians to operate in total synchronicity and secrecy today.


Be willing to accept a marginal improvement in the status quo, or worse

(After Gingrich’s resignation, Rep. Dennis Hastert, right, became heir-apparent to the Speakership)

In 1997, the best part of the rebel’s plan was they had a clear choice for a replacement Speaker who could win the support of the entire conference. But they couldn’t get past the planning stage. In 1998, they had the power to execute a coup but no clear replacement so Bob Livingston of Louisiana, an appropriator and no friend to the rebels, was to become Speaker. When Livingston abruptly resigned due to his past indiscretions on the day President Bill Clinton was going to be impeached, Denny Hastert of Illinois then became heir apparent. (And some think today’s House is chaotic?)

The enduring lesson is conservatives have the power to dethrone a Speaker but they don’t have the power to appoint a Speaker. If a future insurgency wants to overthrow a Speaker be prepared to accept someone who may be marginally better, marginally less bad (the outcome in 1998), or worse.


Provide better leadership

(Rather than whine, House conservatives should emulate Sen. Tom Coburn and focus on writing better legislation than leadership)

In a free society, there is a time and place for an honest coup but the most effective way to ‘hate leadership’ is to love them and serve them by doing their job better than they are. In short, if you don’t like leadership, you have two choices: replace them or be a better leader yourself.

As Solomon writes in Proverbs, “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”

If today’s self-described conservatives are so enraged that Boehner “went to Pelosi” for votes on the CRomnibus they can retaliate by helping leadership write better appropriations bills that can prevail. In fact, if Republicans fail to execute on “regular order” and fail to send President Obama bills that limit government after he issued veto threats, their majority will be wasted. Shouldn’t conservatives be focused on combating Barack Obama’s betrayal of America through the tools they control, such as spending bills?

Conservatives should be leading this charge but are too often focus on flawed and self-serving campaigns like last year’s shutdown and other “defundamentalist” crusades that dumb down conservative purity. (Part of the blame rests with outside groups who are more interested in fundraising than the work of limited government – it’s one thing to plot a coup within an outside group like FreedomWorks, it’s quite another to overthrow the third-most powerful person in America.)


The problem with House conservatives who are obsessed with hating leadership is not that they are too tea party, but they are not tea party enough. The original tea party was a movement of creative happy warriors (see Coburn’s tenure and successful fight against earmarks).

What we see too often is not tea party optimism but a weird and morose Indie Conservative movement of members and activists who are perpetually unhappy, marginalized and betrayed. It is an anti-establishment establishment of semi-professional conservatives and unskilled insurgents who seem to prefer whining to working. As a child of the 1980’s it reminds me of the lunch table of the truly alternative kids who were mad that bands like REM and U2 “sold-out” when they became successful. How dare REM’s Michael Stipe enunciate his syllables and U2 enter arenas?

Conservatives should be happy about the 2014 elections. We won. In 1998, we had a reason to be irate. We lost seats and we were facing leaders who were writing pork-laden spending bills and actively opposing conservatives who wanted to limit government. Is John Boehner blocking conservatives from writing pork-free spending bills that reform government?   Is he punishing hard work, oversight and innovative conservative solutions that limit government and expand freedom?

“What we see too often is an anti-establishment establishment of semi-professional conservatives and unskilled insurgents who seem to prefer whining to working.”

Conservatives who want Boehner to fight harder on spending or on an issue like immigration have a legitimate complaint, but not much perspective and often less moral authority. John Boehner isn’t the president and doesn’t have the power to draft executive orders. And if you want him to have more fight then fight. Use your constitutional authority to legislate and conduct oversight. Work. Don’t whine. Do the hard work of legislating and prepare your reform arsenal. That’s precisely what Coburn did after being disappointed by Gingrich’s failed leadership. Coburn never stopped modeling leadership. He released another oversight report this weekend on DHS, in the waning hours of his term. Is a House member ready to turn that report into a bill, or is it more important to complain about John Boehner not giving you enough time to read bills you could have written yourself?

The fact is today’s Republican party is far more conservative, healthy and successful than it was in 1998 – thanks, in part, to effective insurgent leaders like Coburn. Still, there may well be a time and a place for a quality coup. Being overthrown again may be good for John Boehner’s soul, or the soul of other future leaders. But, today is probably not that day. Yet, should that day come, by all means, don’t announce your plans on national TV #letsgetcaesar.

 John Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.