How a 'legislative terrorist' conquered the Republican Party

Brian Rosenwald

In the wake of every House Republican voting against impeaching Donald Trump, it's reasonable to see the GOP as the president's party, remade in his image. But to truly understand the transformation of the Republican Party during the Trump years, we actually should focus on someone else: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Jordan's journey from gadfly loathed by party leadership to ranking committee member, presidential confidant, and party leader exemplifies how the GOP has changed in the Trump Era — and how Trumpism won't be easily undone after the 45th president leaves office.

The ideological transformation of the Republican Party has been ongoing for more than a half century. What was once the party of moderates like Dwight Eisenhower and liberals like Nelson Rockefeller, dominated by figures from the two coasts and stalwarts in the Midwest, slowly became a staunchly conservative party centered in the South.

By the time Jordan was first elected to Congress in 2006, the highly conservative Texan George W. Bush was president. But Bush had a pragmatic streak. He cut bipartisan deals on education and immigration reform (which failed thanks to a revolt led by conservative talk radio), added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, and preached compassionate conservatism.

The story of the party's move towards total war politics and Trumpism is the story of how Jordan's breed of politics eclipsed Bush's brand of conservatism.

Jordan was one of the most conservative members of the House during his first two terms. But he was also insignificant with Republicans in the minority. Once the Tea Party wave swept his party to power, however, Jordan was flush with new hardline allies. He was elected to lead the Republican Study Committee, a large conservative group within the new Republican majority.

Within months, he had become a thorn in the side of House Speaker John Boehner, insisting that failing to raise the debt ceiling would not result in the United States defaulting, and opposing a leadership proposal for addressing the matter. His staff even conspired with outside groups to pressure Republicans to vote against Boehner's proposal. Two years later, Jordan was a key player in forcing a government shutdown because President Obama would not agree to delaying and defunding his signature health-care legislation for a year — a tactic Boehner had warned would leave leading Democrats grinning because they "can't believe we're this f---ing stupid." Though Republicans were widely perceived to have lost the shutdown battle, Jordan was unrepentant.

He believed that Democrats could be compelled to capitulate through the use of hardline tactics, brinkmanship, and a total unwillingness to compromise.

In 2015, Jordan became the founding chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, a smaller, even more hardline group that would come to fight against numerous leadership initiatives. By that fall, Freedom Caucus members — against Jordan's counselpushed Boehner into early retirement and helped scuttle the candidacy of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to succeed him.

While 70 percent of Freedom Caucus endorsed Paul Ryan to succeed Boehner, it was only after he made them numerous promises to secure their support. Even so, Jordan and his allies would make Ryan's life difficult as they had Boehner's. So much did leadership worry about Jordan that when House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz announced he would resign from Congress in 2017, leadership helped recruit Rep. Trey Gowdy to run for the position to ensure that it wouldn't fall to Jordan.

In an interview after retiring, Boehner called Jordan a "legislative terrorist" and an "asshole."

In an earlier era, a figure like Jordan who constantly picked fights with his own party's leadership would have faced serious repercussions. Banishment to the most insignificant and unpleasant committees, an inability to get things done for his home district, perhaps even a primary challenge.

But in an era with a proliferation of conservative media — talk radio, cable news, and digital outlets — someone like Jordan could instead become a star by picking the same fights. Conservative media is a business and the best radio and television comes from black and white content — strongly voiced opinions, clear convictions, exhortations to principles, things that stir emotion and keep the audience tuned in. That meant that someone like Jordan preached what viewers and listeners — the Republican base — heard every day. Further, his style of politics made for far more compelling radio or television than a committee chairman or Republican leader explaining why divided government or Senate rules necessitated compromises.

This fit between the business interests of conservative media and his politics made Jordan one of the heroes on the conservative airwaves and a frequent guest. Stardom gave him too much of an independent power base by the mid-2010s for leadership to punish him meaningfully. He didn't need them for fundraising, and any attempt at discipline would've sent him scurrying to the airwaves to fight back. In the end, it might've been leadership who lost the fight because conservative media had the ear of exactly the sorts of voters who showed up in low turnout Republican primaries, the most critical elections in most Republican districts in an era of geographic polarization.

But while conservative media helped to make Jordan impervious to leadership criticism, it didn't make him part of that leadership. His elevation came thanks to Trump. Jordan caught the ear of Trump, and became a confidant and one of the president's fiercest defenders.

When Republicans lost control of the House in 2018 and Ryan and Gowdy retired, new House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the Republican Steering Committee installed Jordan, with encouragement from Trump, as the ranking member of the Oversight Committee. This was a significant change from 2017, when there was doubt the Steering Committee would choose Jordan given the animosity from many Republicans towards him. And then as impeachment hearings were about to begin in front of the House Intelligence Committee, McCarthy made the unusual move of temporarily removing another Republican to add Jordan to the committee. McCarthy saw great benefit in Jordan's trademark aggressive questioning and vigorous defense of Trump.

During those hearings, Elise Stefanik, long seen as the anti-Jim Jordan, a leadership ally, one of the most moderate Republicans in the House, and someone previously focused on solutions and bipartisanship, became an instant sensation with Jordan-like questioning and charges against Democrats, and even joined him for press conferences. Reporting indicates that this was a savvy move for Stefanik both in her Republican-leaning district and within the House GOP.

While it's unquestionably easier for leadership to be aligned with Jordan in the minority, when they have no responsibility for governing, it's also true that the onetime leadership antagonist is now the top Republican on a key committee and a major spokesman for the House GOP. Stefanik's move exposes how Jordan's tactics are what Republican voters want from their elected officials. Far from an outsider, Jordan is now part of the Republican establishment — one that sees politics much more like he does than George W. Bush. And that's not likely to change even when Trump leaves office, be it in 2021 or 2025.

For better or worse, it's Jim Jordan's GOP now.

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