The House of Representatives has been enmeshed in chaos since the former Republican speaker Kevin McCarthy was voted out on Oct. 3 by members of his own conference. Steve Scalise then ran for the speakership but withdrew his candidacy, and multiple votes failed for Jim Jordan, the next candidate, as well.
Representative Don Bacon of Nebraska has been outspoken in his displeasure with a small band of fellow Republicans who were able to oust Mr. McCarthy in the narrowly divided House and now have been unable to replace him. Some members of the Republican conference “don’t realize how our government really works,” Mr. Bacon said, and are playing to an audience of social media observers, giving them “an unrealistic view of what’s going on.”
As the votes continue to stall out, Mr. Bacon has been on the receiving end of some pressure. On Wednesday, an aide for a congressman with a similar name posted that his office was receiving angry calls.
This interview, which took place last week, before the first vote for Mr. Jordan, has been edited for length and clarity, is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.
Jane Coaston: Help me understand the start of the current mess. How did we get to the place where Kevin McCarthy couldn’t get the votes?
Rep. Don Bacon: First, I think we have unreasonable people who are more about themselves. I accept that if I agree with somebody 80 percent, I’ll still back them. These guys were wanting 100 percent. No. 2, we should never have agreed to the single-vote motion to vacate the chair. I thought it was wrong in January, but the speaker thought that was the only way he could get enough Republicans on the board to become speaker. In hindsight, that was a dire mistake.
You said after the McCarthy vote that Republicans needed to get rid of the one-vote motion to vacate. Otherwise, whoever the new speaker is is going to be held hostage on this.
Do you feel like this blackmail dynamic describes the overall Republican conference right now?
Well, it’s not overall, it’s 10 people or so. Because we have such a small majority, they have a lot of leverage and it’s wrong. Even with a new speaker, we’re going to have to do a continuing resolution in November, and I think we can have a vacate-the-chair vote happen again.
When the majority is this narrow, as you mentioned, every vote counts, we’re talking about five to 10 people, why are Republicans getting dragged into these priorities of the this small group on the right? Theoretically, some moderate people in battleground districts could be holding this much sway, too, so why aren’t you?
We’ve defeated a lot of things before it got to the floor, behind closed doors. The things you don’t read about. I think we’re more team players.
But we could play by the same tactics. I have thought about it, but I don’t necessarily think it’s good for the country. I was so angry, felt like, hey, my way or the highway. If everybody can do this, I can. But you realize after events like the invasion of Hamas, and with budget decisions we’ve got to make, that throwing a temper tantrum in Washington or revenge isn’t good for the country, so try to get above it.
You’ve called out the Freedom Caucus and its influence and obstruction on who leads the House, but I want you to help me think about this. What is the Freedom Caucus doing that is working for them? Why is it working? Why are they doing this?
Well, it’s not all the Freedom Caucus. In other words, it’s fragments of it. But they’re driving very conservative bills out of the House. For example, on the debt ceiling, we passed a very conservative bill that was a negotiating position, and they thought that should be the final bill, but you’ve got to work with the Senate.
I find a lot of them don’t realize how our government really works. They think they can actually force the Senate to do their bidding, and we all know that this place operates on consensus and middle ground. When it’s all said and done, especially when you’re talking about negotiating the Senate version, versus the House version, you’re going to get something in the middle. I’ve talked to some of them — they do not accept that premise. Their feet are not on the ground.
I think a lot of these guys play to the clicks. If you live in an echo chamber and you’re only talking to people that agree with you, I think, well, you have an unrealistic view of what’s going on, then.
You talked in your campaign for the House about your conservative values. The Freedom Caucus they see themselves as defenders of conservative values. What is your definition of a conservative, and how is it different from what that smaller segment of the Freedom Caucus is about?
I see conservatism as supporting federalism, keeping power at the local level to the maximum extent possible, peace through strength, the role of the family is the most important institution in our country, being pro-life. You want to keep violent criminals behind bars, don’t let them out early, because that’s how we’re getting the increase in violence. We believe in trying to balance the budget. I think the new brand of so-called conservatism today is more of populism, because it’s not really conservative in my book. It’s 1930s Republicanism, which was more isolationist, didn’t want to get involved in Europe at all. A lot of the things you hear today from the populist wing sound a lot like the Republicans in the 1930s, and they weren’t very popular. We had F.D.R. They didn’t win back then, either.
[Violent crime is currently higher than it was before the pandemic but has decreased over the last year, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. There’s a longstanding debate about what causes increases in violent crime.]
There was a party called the Know-Nothing Party in the mid-19th century. You read some of those dumb comments back then. Well, some of the stuff I read today sounds parallel to that, too. They’re convinced Ukraine has armed Hamas. I’m getting all the stuff sent to me, and it’s just not true. But because they read it, it becomes truth, even though it’s on a, I would say, a very skeptical news source. If you find out that Ukraine sent weapons to Hamas, would you tell me?
I would be happy to. That would be a giant piece of information.
Do you think the traditional conservatives are winning the conversation in the G.O.P. right now? Judging based on McCarthy’s loss, and again, some of the rhetoric you’re hearing, it sounds like it’s losing.
Well, I think there’s a fight for the soul of the party. I don’t know who’s got the upper hand. I think Ukraine is a reflection of this right now. But I feel like many of our leadership don’t want to be the lightning rod, so they try to slide under the radar. We should have been pushing back from day one on the Ukraine conspiracy theories that are running around. I mean, I still get mail that the Nazis are running Ukraine, bio-labs, and all this stuff. We should have been more verbal from the get-go and stood up to this. I’ve asked our leadership, even if it’s not the popular thing to do, you’ve got to stand on truth, because in the end, the truth wins.
In the winter, there was a little bit of talk about the idea of a bipartisan coalition choosing a speaker, which probably makes sense to a lot of people in terms of reducing the sway of a few people, but it also seems impossible. Is that actually impossible?
It’s essentially never been done. That tells you one thing. I don’t think we’re ready for it right at this moment. However, if we have another vacate-the-chair situation, I think at some point people are going to say, “This is the only alternative — we’re going to have to do a more bipartisan leadership.”
Passing the most conservative bills out of the House that just die in the Senate, it’s not governing. I don’t think we’re ready for it yet. But if we have continued chaos like we’ve had, like we had in January, I think more and more folks will come to the realization it’s the only way forward.
What are the different types of conservatism that you see in the House, and what have been your experiences with those types?
There’s traditionally been the fiscal conservatives, the national security conservatives, and the social conservatives. Now you’ve got the fourth one. I would say it’s more the populism brand in there.
When you get down to someone’s core issue, you’ll find out what’s their main thing. For me, it’s being pro-life. Obviously, there’s others that’s spending. We’ve got a $33 trillion debt, so that’s probably a top priority for some.
Do you think Matt Gaetz is a conservative?
No. He’s a populist.
Do you talk to him at all?
I used to. We came in together. But he’s gotten more vocal, and more lack of team play, with each year, it seems to me. What he did to Kevin was wrong. I’m a Christian, I believe you’ve got to love people, but you don’t have to like them professionally. Right? He’s done more damage to the Republican Party than he knows.
What do people not understand about how the House works?
When I got elected in the 115th Congress, we were so proud of the number of bills we passed out of the House. But then I remember, midway through, I go, “None of it’s really passed in the Senate.” I made a decision then to change my operating style. I’m not saying I was not bipartisan, but I mean, I said, “OK, I’ve got to get involved in groups where there’s Republicans and Democrats crafting legislation, because passing stuff out of the House, it feels good, but it’s not sustaining.”
Our government was built to govern by consensus. We’re not a parliament. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Our founders made it hard, even for the majority, to get things done.
Do you think that the Republican Party 10 years from now will be more Trumpy, for lack of a better word, or less Trumpy?
I think they’re going to be back to Reagan conservatism, because in the end, populism loses. You lose a few elections, people are going to say, you know what? This isn’t working. I hate to see that, because I don’t like the agenda of Joe Biden and the Democrats. What I see right now in the world is chaos. Whether it’s the border, whether it’s the deficit, whether it’s foreign policy, Afghanistan, energy policy. As a traditional Republican, traditional conservative, I think he’s doing a terrible job.
I don’t say this with any glee, but if we’re going to run on this populism brand, it’s going to lose. Right now there’s some denial about why we came up short the last election, or 2020. But I’m that Air Force guy, so if I flew an airplane and I missed a target, I would come back and we debrief it: Well, OK, what did we do wrong? If you don’t isolate the root cause of the failure, you’ll do it again.
It may take another loss or two to do it. I hope not. But I think when you lose elections, you’ve got to analyze why. I think in the end, this will self-correct.
Do you think Republicans will win the presidency next year, if it’s Trump versus Biden?
Here’s the issue, the way I see it, is Joe Biden, the people do not like the job he’s doing. He’s the most unpopular president going back to Carter, if you look at favorable ratings at this time of the presidency. Anybody could probably beat him, but I think President Trump would have the biggest challenge of beating him. A lot of folks like Trump’s policies, but when it comes to self-control, and the way he talks to people, and a little bit of the chaos that we had at the White House for those four years. People have got a decision to make, are we going to vote on policy, or are we going to vote on character, self-control, and the way you treat other people?
[Mr. Biden has a relatively low approval rating compared to that of many recent presidents, and Mr. Carter was unpopular, but in the intervening years, Mr. Trump was comparably unpopular.]
If you look at what happened in 2020, some Republicans voted Republican — but skipped the presidential. Independents favored Joe Biden. I firmly believe it’s not about policy, it was more about personality, if that makes sense. I think that same issue will be the overriding issue in 2024 if it’s between these two. I think anybody else could beat Joe Biden handily in 2024. Nikki Haley would clean it up.
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