The GOP Freshmen of 2010: “Spear Carriers” with a Mission

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The 87 Republicans that propelled the House GOP into the majority in 2010 were a freshman class unlike any other. Some had prior experience in politics, but many others did not. Renee Ellmers came straight to Washington after 21 years as nurse in North Carolina. Steve Southerland owned a Florida funeral home. Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy was a reality TV star.

Nonetheless, the freshmen of 2010 arrived on Capitol Hill with a mission. As Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) told FRONTLINE, “We came not to do the same thing over and over, to change Washington, to change that conversation.” The debt ceiling offered an early opportunity, and as promised, the 87 helped shift not just the debate over spending, but also dynamics inside the Republican Party and Washington politics altogether.

For more on that legacy, FRONTLINE turned to Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. This is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Thomas Mann is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. Between 1987 and 1999, he was Director of Governmental Studies at Brookings. Before that, Mann was executive director of the American Political Science Association.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He writes a weekly column for Roll Call called “Congress Inside Out” and is an election analyst for CBS News.

How distinct was the GOP freshman class of 2010?  What made them different?

Thomas Mann: It was distinctive in its size, which was enormous in relative terms, and its ideological orientation, which was further right of center than was the norm for the party. …

But perhaps most distinctive of all, it was a group that came to Washington believing they had a mission: That they knew what the problem was, they knew what the solution was, and it was just a matter of executing.

Norman Ornstein: Stu Rothenberg, who covers Congressional elections as well as anybody, asked one of the 2010 freshmen what made this group different from the class of 1994 — that was of course the Gingrich class. And he said: “Well, you know, we share a basic philosophy, an approach to the role of government. But they ‘went Washington’ and we won’t.” …

That’s going to grab your attention if you’ve been following politics for some time, because it’s not as if the class of 1994 became a group of establishment figures. And I think what he meant by that, this freshman, was they voted for something. They may have done something in a bipartisan way, they compromised, and that this was a class that didn’t come to Washington to vote for something or to compromise. They came to create a lasting revolution and to stick by their principles no matter what.

How representative of the broader GOP was this wing of the party?

TM: The rest of the Republican Party bought into the overall agenda of the new members coming in. I think they felt that was their route to power and they had to go in that direction.

NO: They certainly did not represent the longstanding establishment of the Republican Party, and that includes the very conservative establishment, but they reflected what has been a growing phenomenon. And it’s a growing phenomenon that’s in an activist Republican or conservative public … and [that] is a distrust of leaders, including your own leaders, a deep antipathy towards and even deeper distrust of government at all levels, but especially in Washington, and a belief that the establishment figures will protect their own or protect their patrons.

This group helped the GOP win the majority in the House, but their message was very anti-Washington. How did the Republican leadership view them?

“The freshmen Republicans were the spear-carriers, but they were well supplied and supported by Republicans who’d been around Washington for some time.”

NO: Keep in mind that [Speaker of the House John] Boehner and [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor, [Majority Whip Kevin] McCarthy, the “Young Guns,” had a lot to do with many of these members getting elected. They went out and campaigned for them and they gave them themes.

And one of the things we talk about at length in It’s Even Worse Than it Looks is the degree to which Cantor and McCarthy and [Paul] Ryan went out and got those people to run on the debt limit. It was a handy-dandy way of talking about government out of control, and even back then they were engineering the kind of showdown over the debt limit that turned into the debacle of 2011. …

But I think afterwards they began to see that if you’re riding on the back of a rabid tiger, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can maintain control.

TM: The freshmen Republicans were the spear-carriers, but they were well supplied and supported by Republicans who’d been around Washington for some time.

What role did they play during the debt limit negotiations of 2011?

TM: They weren’t interested in negotiation. … For them, they were looking for immediate reductions, and if they weren’t there they were hardly worth talking about.

NO: They were, I suppose, to some degree the messengers for leaders who wanted to use this process to bludgeon President Obama to achieve their goals. They needed people who were going to be credible in terms of not caving so that Boehner, Cantor and others could got to the administration and say, “Hey, when we say we’ll breach the debt limit, we mean it, and we’ve got the votes to prove it.” …

But here too the problem that you run into in that set of circumstances is you’re not dealing with a group of people who by nature are going to turn on a dime when you decide that you need them to move in a different direction. They’re not loyal foot soldiers. You have given them a set of themes including: “Hey big deal, breach the debt limit. That will just show how determined we are to reduce spending.” And when you turn around and say, “You know, we got to cut a deal here because if not there could be serious consequences,” you’re telling them the opposite of what you had told them and encouraged them to believe and go out and say for months and months. So I think it was a double-edged sword for the leaders.

The left has blamed them for compounding obstructionism. The right says they helped the party stick to core principles. Which is it? What’s their legacy?

NO: We don’t know yet what the legacy will be. What we do know is that some of them are going to be around for a significant period of time.

We do know one of the legacies of the class of 1994 was that it helped to engender the kind of tribalism we have now, and many of the members from that class of 1994 moved on to the Senate and helped to pollute the Senate with the same kind of divisions. But some of them also moved on to have very significant roles in policy and politics. It’s not clear what is going to happen with this class.

TM: I would submit that [the 2010] election, the freshmen members and the way in which the Republican leadership and continuing members tried to ride that pony, or that horse, that stallion, to victory in the presidential election two years afterwards, set in motion one of the least productive and most harmful episodes in politics and policy making in our modern history.

Fifteen of the 87 GOP freshmen elected in 2010 lost re-election in 2012. What signal does that send to those who won a second term? 

“You’re not dealing with a group of people who by nature are going to turn on a dime when you decide that you need them to move in a different direction. They’re not loyal foot soldiers.”

TM: Some of them changed what they were saying. They became somewhat more open to accommodation. Others found themselves challenged from the further right, and in that sense became, you could say, by comparison, more moderate in their views. I think they all learned something as all freshmen do about the legislative process, and some learned better than others.

NO: Even though most of them prevailed … the lesson that they’ve learned is you better be prepared for a challenge from your right, and the challenge that’s likely to come will be there if somebody can gain traction and make the case that you have “gone Washington.” And how do they make that case? If you vote for something. And that of course helps to explain why Boehner couldn’t keep his troops together on his Plan B.

What about their influence inside the GOP? How has the dynamic changed since the November elections?

TM: There are a lot of differences, fractures developing within the party … Boehner’s going to find himself in a position more often than he already has of being called upon to violate the so-called Hastert Rule. That is to allow legislation to go to the floor that doesn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans but for which a majority of the whole House can be identified, meaning Democrats would constitute the largest parts of those supporting it. That’s going to be required to get anything of consequence done in the 113th Congress.

NO: I think what you see is an enormous amount of soul searching. Some of it occurred not just because they lost, but because the narrative of the party and of its outside sympathizers and commentators was so wrong right up until election eve. … And now you have to confront the reality that the opposite is true, and that the electorate is turning in a way that makes it much harder for you and your message.

Looking ahead, what role will this wing have in shaping the future of the GOP?

TM: The Republican Party will shrink if, in effect, it’s the party in which the most important symbol is Ayn Rand and the most important political group is Club for Growth or Americans For Prosperity. This is not a route to building a durable majority coalition in the country. It leaves out the groups that are growing and doubles down on those that are declining.

So I think the party’s going to have to become much more pragmatic, much more tolerant, and much more open to contrasting and dissenting views if it’s going to pull its way back into the mainstream of American politics.

NO: This is not a set of conflicts that … will be resolved [and] it’s probably not one that will even move down to a level of simmer from boil for some time to come.

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