One of Congressman Raul Labrador’s best friends in high school was a filmmaker and a musician with big dreams. Yet, it was Labrador who recently was part of a feature article in Rolling Stone Magazine.
But the article had nothing to do with Labrador’s musical talents (he has none). He was part of a profile on the conservative Freedom Caucus, which played a major role in ousting Ohio’s John Boehner from the speakership and keeping California Rep. Kevin McCarthy from seeking the position. The speaker’s job went to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, but he had to go through the Freedom Caucus (and Labrador, specifically) to get it. During a town hall meeting in Meridian last week, Labrador said the group gave Ryan notice that he has 14 months to produce, or face getting replaced.
Labrador is no rock star, but his political stock is rising rapidly – and he doesn’t appear to be a one-hit wonder. He came to Congress in 2011 with ambitions to shake up things in Washington, and he has done just that. The Freedom Caucus, which Labrador helped form in January, has been getting plenty of media attention along the way. Time Magazine referred to the caucus as a “rebellion that could change the GOP’s future.” The Rolling Stone’s profile article was titled, “Meet the Right-Wing Rebels Who Overthrew John Boehner.”
The Rolling Stone reporter, Tim Dickinson, followed up with praise for Labrador and the group for promoting $2 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years.
“If you get inside their heads a little bit, they see that America is going off a cliff eventually, that our spending is out of control, that we have no budget discipline in Washington, that something dramatic needs to happen,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio. “We talk about how obstructionist they’ve been, but they’ve also been real effective.”
The Freedom Caucus isn’t the only GOP revolution to have success in the House. The Conservative Opportunity Society shook up the House in the 1980s and eventually brought Newt Gingrich to power in the ‘90s. That group, which included Idaho’s Larry Craig, mostly targeted the Democratic majority. But it also took shots at the Republican minority for being too passive and yielding to Democrats. Craig and his colleagues wanted the GOP to press harder for a balanced-budget amendment, and budget resolutions at the end of the year became more than “routine business.”
Labrador and the Freedom Caucus have done more than buck leadership. It has changed the entire leadership structure, and the way of doing business in the Republican conference.
Labrador essentially told Boehner to quit, or get fired. The Idaho congressman also told McCarthy, point blank, that he need not apply for the position. Ryan was not the group’s first choice to take the top position (it was Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida), but in the end – and after extensive grilling – Labrador’s group decided that Ryan was well suited for uniting the party.
Ryan’s acceptance speech, in which he acknowledged the House was broken, struck a nerve with Labrador, who has been saying the same thing since he arrived in Congress. In the last few weeks, Labrador says, the House has transformed from a dreary place to do business to something that is closer to what he saw in the Idaho House of Representatives.
“In the Idaho Legislature, you could be your own person. Sometimes I won, and sometimes I lost, but I never felt constrained,” he said.
Labrador sees his role, and that of the Freedom Caucus, to be partners with Ryan and other Republicans in developing a solid party vision heading into a presidential election – a vision that is not limited to complaining about President Obama’s policies, or bashing Hillary Clinton.
Judging by last week’s Republican presidential debate, the GOP agenda needs some work. Deporting 11 million people, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, repealing Obamacare and making the federal government look more like the city of Lewiston is not the kind of vision that wins presidential elections.
But there’s plenty of time for Republicans to build a viable strategy, and Labrador – working with Ryan and others – is well positioned to be part of those efforts.