Did Paul Ryan Outsmart the Freedom Caucus?
Policy + Politics

Did Paul Ryan Outsmart the Freedom Caucus?

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The news that Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan had persuaded a large majority of the House of Representatives’ most conservative element to support his bid for speaker of the House left some grass-roots groups on the right – which had been rabidly against a Ryan speakership just hours before – rather confused.

By some accounts, Ryan had bamboozled the House Freedom Caucus with empty promises and would now ascend to the speakership to continue the work of the hated current speaker, John Boehner. By other accounts, it was the conservatives who had rolled Ryan, denying him the full endorsement he had requested (the Freedom Caucus requires 80 percent agreement to endorse someone) and undercutting his ability to enforce the demands he made earlier this week around conditions of his service.

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The back story is that the Freedom Caucus -- after forcing Boehner’s resignation and rejecting his likeliest successor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy -- forced House Republicans to scramble for a candidate who could get the support of the majority of the Republican caucus.

Ryan, after multiple statements indicating he preferred to stay on as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, eventually succumbed to intense pressure to run, but only under certain conditions. He demanded the endorsement of three main caucuses within the House GOP, including the Freedom Caucus. He also required that his duties allow him considerable time with his young family. And he required that the process by which a single member can introduce a privileged motion to “vacate the chair” – essentially booting the speaker from his job – be changed so that he wouldn’t have to live under constant threat of losing his job.

The demands didn’t sit well with many on the far right of the political spectrum, including the outside pressure groups that have been pressing conservative members of the House to stand together and demand major changes to how the institution is organized and run, most of which would devolve greater power to individual members and committees.

The ultra-conservative group Tea Party Patriots immediately plastered a “Stop Paul Ryan” banner across its website with the message: “So Paul Ryan wants to be Speaker as long as he can never be removed. He wants all future Speakers to never fear retribution from Members of Congress for doing a bad job. This is just another reason why Paul Ryan does not need to be the next Speaker of the House.”

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When it came out that in a Wednesday evening meeting with the Freedom Caucus Ryan secured the support of more than two-thirds of the group, other conservatives were outraged.

The conservative website Breitbart.com declared in a headline, “Paul Ryan Sold the House Freedom Caucus a Bill of Goods.”

The story, by Matthew Boyle, alleged that Ryan had made “secret” promises to the Freedom Caucus members, swaying enough of them to gain the support of a majority while failing to achieve the group’s 80 percent threshold for an endorsement.

Boyle pointed out that Ryan had said he would only proceed if he received an endorsement from the three major House caucuses. If Ryan were to move forward with a majority but no endorsement, he would be “breaking a promise” to them.

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“Will they believe him on everything else he told them in that room?” he wrote. “If they do vote for him, and he doesn’t deliver all these things, the Freedom Caucus becomes politically irrelevant. If they don’t believe him after the first move he’d make is breaking a promise – to Americans and to his GOP colleagues about a condition that would need to be filled for him to run for Speaker – it’s entirely possible the Freedom Caucus members who previously would have supported Ryan turn on him in the coming days.

“It goes without saying, though,” Boyle added, “that Ryan is a brilliant strategist who cooked this whole master plan up from the beginning.”

Not all conservative activists were as downcast, though. Larry Ward, president of the Constitutional Rights PAC and organizer of a coalition of a groups banded together under the “Fire Paul Rayan” campaign, said that the result of Ryan’s meeting with the Freedom Caucus might be seen as a win for conservatives. 

“Ryan vowed to only run if he got their endorsement,” Ward said by email. “He did not. Now if he runs, his demands are off the table and his promises to the Freedom Caucus are on the table. The Caucus may have outfoxed the ‘smart’ one for now, but lots is likely to change before the vote next week.”

Related: Paul Ryan’s Nod from the Freedom Caucus Clears His Run for Speaker

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson was similarly optimistic. “This is the best of both worlds. Paul Ryan can move to the Speaker’s chair and the House Freedom Caucus held its ground against a coordinated campaign to box them into an untenable position with an endorsement,” he wrote.

“I hope the House conservatives pay attention to this,” Erickson continued. “They stayed united, they did not give Ryan an endorsement, but two-thirds of their members were willing to go along with Paul Ryan as Speaker while rejecting Ryan’s preconditions.”

The lack of an outright endorsement from the Freedom Caucus, at least in theory, gives Ryan an out if he decides he really doesn’t want what appears to be a completely thankless job. However, the indications at the moment are that he will push forward with his run for speaker and that he will have the votes to take the chair when Boehner vacates it next week.

How he will run the House – or try to run it, at least – remains unclear.