Once the Freedom Caucus was a faction of principled intransigents;they fought tooth and nail against the initial healthcare overhaul bill proposed by newly-inaugurated President Trump because it did not deliver on the promise of full repeal GOP officials had long made to their voters. This resistance was the coup de grâce for a slipshod policy-making process: the Affordable Healthcare Act (AHCA) not only betrayed a Republican campaign rallying cry that was eight years in the making, but whittled away the core of the right-wing ideology. Initial GOP opposition to the Affordable Care Act was rooted in principles that spoke to the party’s small government ideology: government takeover of the healthcare industry eroded the private-public divide established by the enumerated powers of the Constitution; it undermined private property rights. It was for principled politics that the Freedom Caucus, under the leadership of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), dared to stand up to the rhetorical guff of the nubile president, who placed full responsibility for the bill’s foundering on its opponents.
But the Freedom Caucus no longer stands for principle over naked power politics. It has since reversed its position and stands not against, but for the destructive impulses of public policy guided by personal whim. Despite Trump’s propensity to envelop his rhetoric in populist overtones that speak of an almost slavishly altruistic desire to protect and aid his people, his intentions are belied by the effects his actions have. True security, at least in the lexicon of government, means stability and consistency. It means citizens aren’t left to navigate a shifting labyrinth of government regulation, which changes with the whim of the executive; they are sure of what laws are in effect and how they touch upon their lives.
Government security is about an even-keeled administration of rigid laws—to which all are equally accountable—and not the bluster of a particular man whose moods shift like a weather vane in a windstorm and who is incapable of divorcing his personal grievances from his executive powers.
Once upon a time, the Freedom Caucus understood this distinction. But their decision, along with members of the Republican Study Committee and other conservatives, signals that too many on the right have become little more than party automatons, unable to understand the difference between principled behavior and sycophancy.
Repeal of Obamacare was a promise 8 years in the making; it was established law and principled conservative opposition to the AHCA was focused on opposition to a bill that addressed—or rather failed to adequately address—a specific political failure. It was also in many ways an internal party issue. It was not just the fundamental tenets of right-wing ideology that were at issue with Trump’s healthcare half-measure, but party ethics as well. Can a party expect to command any power or retain the loyalty of its constituents when it betrays its core values and breaks long-standing promises to voters? This was not simply a question of one bill, but a question of the long-term health of the party. Short-term success means nothing without the long-term ability to command majority power.
Trump’s border wall petulance is orders of magnitude different. He has threatened, and indeed seems poised, to hold funding for large swathes of government hostage over one particular issue. Agencies affected by a potential shutdown include the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, agencies whose missions are integral to the president’s immigration policy, which he claims to be promoting by his refusal to sign the Senate’s stopgap funding measure.
Certainly, border security has been an emphasis of the party,but is there any reason why this promise should be so inviolable when Trump and other Republican leaders held so cheaply their promise to fully repeal Obamacare? We are dealing now not with questions of party ethics and the consideration of promoting a sense of efficacy for constituents in the electorate,but the ethics of the schoolyard. These are bully tactics; Trump’s message is clear: give in to my will or pay the penalty. And much like a tyrannical tyke,he cares little who gets in his way. Responsible leadership may be principled;it may take intransigent stances and refuse to pass policy with which it disagrees. Responsible leadership, however, does not subvert the entirety of the political system to its whims. It cannot do so without undermining the very institutions it relies upon to pass policies amenable to those values that underlie the policies it hopes to pass. It shows an utter disregard for the framework of government and instead promotes only brute power, which is ultimately then answerable only to that personality that has forced its way to the pinnacle of authority.
Principle comes from conscience. It is borne of the insuppressible tendencies of the inquisitive mind: to explore, to question, to press ever for answers. For it is only through relentless questioning that one can gain a set of principles: the more one questions and arrives at conclusions and integrates those conclusions, the more certain one can be of right and wrong.But such a process also recognizes that conscience is borne not only of volition—the desire for knowledge—but freedom: it is impossible to question if social taboos and morays everywhere closet off knowledge. And so, a person of principle must respect the freedom of others to explore and arrive at his own conclusions.
Principle is antithetical to force. It is not principle that drives Trump or his conservative supporters in the House to push the government to shutdown over the issue of border wall funding; it is a desire to impose their ideas upon the rest of the country. Certainly, there are members of the public who support the president’s position and cheer this move. But there are also others who don’t. This is a policy issue deserving of debate; Congress’ main purpose is to be a deliberative body, to represent the views of factions within the populace and expand them by moving them into the national stage that is the floors of both Congressional chambers. When the Freedom Caucus sunk the first draft of the AHCA, they did so by following normal rules and procedures.Those who opposed the bill on ideological grounds did so and managed to sway enough people to their cause to cause the bill’s failure. But they left others free to follow their own conscience.
That is not what Trump and his supporters in the House are doing here. They are attempting to take away from others the ability to dissent on principle with border wall funding; they have engineered a do-or-die situation and are attempting to pass blame for the government shutdown on those who dare disagree, making it look as if it is the dissenting faction who jeopardizes the nation’s security. In fact, it is those who play fast and loose with the proper boundaries of power that put the nation’s at risk. They set a precedent which normalizes placing will above the rule of law, normalizing the idea that personal priorities are a legitimate guide of public policy.
Also published on Medium.