Cantor, Ryan, Rubio, Rush: Who Speaks for the GOP?
Policy + Politics

Cantor, Ryan, Rubio, Rush: Who Speaks for the GOP?

Reuters/AP Photo/The Fiscal Times

There are plenty of voices speaking for Republicans, so many of them that it’s unleashed a host of contradictions.

The party is trying to create a fresh identity after President Obama hammered them in the 2012 election. But it’s not quite clear who exactly speaks for the party as a whole.

Is it House Speaker John Boehner who has struggled to lead his own caucus? Is it a rambunctiously outspoken New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who blasts his fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill? Or is it Tea Party types, presidential hopefuls, cash-heavy Super PACs determined to shape elections, and radio show and TV hosts who thrive on conservative bombast.

When The Fiscal Times put the question to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—as he sold a softer, nicer vision of the GOP at a Tuesday speech—the Virginian suggested it did not matter. 

“The average American is not thinking about, kind of wondering about where the Republican party is; they’re thinking about how to make their life work, which is exactly what we talked about here today,” Cantor said. “They want to see results. And the point of my talk today is to say that we Republicans in the House are dedicated to those ends.”

But if there was a clear voice about where the GOP was headed, why has Cantor joined the ranks of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Fox News personalities and others who are talking about the party’s identity?

Each is vying for more authority. And if results are what Americans want, then the question remains as to who sets the expectations for what those results will be. Are they immigration reform as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio seeks? Are they greater deficit reduction? Are they policies that look beyond the pettiness in Washington?

Stuart Rothenberg, a prominent political analyst, noted that the Democrats have also gone through identity crises after losing presidential elections, but the GOP is currently defined by its internal rifts.

“Part of the problem is that the division within the Republican Party is pretty deep right now,” Rothenberg said. “The focus for the moment and the foreseeable future will be on differences of opinion, different strategies, different interpretations of what happened in the last election and what the party has to do next time. And when exactly will the party come together, I don’t know. Probably the first time the president makes a horrendous mistake … they’ll smell blood and they’ll get on the same page—at least for a moment.”

Here’s a breakdown of the different competing voices:

John Boehner – The 11-term Ohio congressman—known for his love of cigarettes, Merlot and golf—is the party’s top elected official.  As the head of the House Republicans, he gets first priority when challenging Obama.

GOP strategist John Feehery said on MSNBC Tuesday that his position makes him by default the party’s main voice. Boehner can bring bills to the floor for a vote, or condemn them to the dustbin. “He’s the only guy who has power in Washington,” he said.

All true. But Boehner’s grip on his own caucus is tenuous. On the recent fiscal cliff deal that increased taxes on the top 1 percent, 151 Republicans went against Boehner and opposed the bill. Among the opposition was Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Ca. Likewise, 179 Republicans recently voted against a $51 billion Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill. When Boehner speaks for the entire caucus, it’s usually to criticize Obama—a key part of Republican identity, but not the entirety of it.

2016 Contenders - Possible candidates for the GOP presidential nomination are speaking on behalf of the party. This includes New Jersey’s Christie, who blasted Boehner last month for not holding the Sandy voter earlier. Louisiana’s Jindal, who told the Republican National Committee that the GOP must stop being "the stupid party”, said its message needs to go beyond Washington’s obsession with fiscal policy. This also puts the spotlight on the 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who claims the GOP needs to do a better job of selling its small government approach. And it brings more attention to Rubio, whose Cuban heritage makes him the go-to Republican on immigration reform.

Conservative Media – President Obama might not be a Republican insider, but he believes that conservative TV and radio hosts have too strong a grip over the Republican Party. Their rants and interviews have caused political gridlock, he recently told The New Republic.

“One of the biggest factors is going to be how the media shapes debate,” Obama said. “If a Republican member of Congress is not punished on Fox News or by Rush Limbaugh for working with a Democrat on a bill of common interest, then you'll see more of them doing it."

Among the many hosts out there, consider a radio personality like Limbaugh, who has made his presence felt on the airwaves since 1988—when Paul Ryan was just a college freshman. His audience is estimated to be 15 million, although some outlets say he only has 1.4 million listeners at any given time.

In a sign of Limbaugh’s power, Rubio called-in last week to make his pitch for immigration reform.

Limbaugh ended the interview by praising Rubio on-air, causing Time, the Washington Post and even New York Sen. Chuck Schumer to suggest the almighty Rush had been swayed to support amnesty for undocumented workers as proof that a deal was possible.

Not so, Limbaugh declared on-air the next day. “That not only is a total misreading, that is a wish list,” he said. “That is what those people hoped happened.  They misinterpreted my compliments and my attaboys and my praise for Senator Rubio, and I was doing that simply because I thought he was impressive.”

Tea Partiers – Congressmen linked to the Tea Party movement populate a lot of cable news interviews. They’re relentlessly focused on putting the federal government on a strict diet with spending cuts, saying the country has drifted too far from the ideas of 1787.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., outlined his vision last month for WABC radio, “We think a little more of a libertarian Republican, someone who is a strict constitutionalist but also believes in a strong, defensive military but not necessarily in an overly aggressive or bellicose ‘let’s get involved in everybody’s civil war’ military, I think that has more appeal to independents and some people who have given up in the Republican Party.”

Super PACs – Fed up with overly conservative politicians losing statewide elections, Republican strategists including Karl Rove announced this week the formation of the “Conservative Victory Project.”

This outside group would vet and back primary candidates who have a better chance of winning in the general election, a response after the disastrous Senate candidacies of Indiana’s Richard Mourdock and Missouri’s Todd Akin whose comments anti-abortion comments about rape victims offended voters.

That pits one group of Super PACs against others such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, which funds GOP primary candidates who conform to its anti-tax message.

“All events point to a fundamental clash between the old guard Republican establishment, dictating outdated ideas from the top-down, versus a tech-savvy younger generation of activists driving their agenda from the bottom-up,” FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe said in response to the new group.  These blatant acts of hostility are typical behavior of an entrenched political establishment, circling the wagons around incumbents, regardless of job performance in office.”