Speaking his mind — and voting that way — strikes Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson as perfectly compatible with serving in the GOP leadership ranks, and the outspoken freshman Republican vowed not to change if he is elected Conference vice chairman.
But Johnson may find he’s wrong, Republicans intimately familiar with the inner workings of Congressional leadership cautioned. Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander said as much this week when he announced he would step down from leadership in January. The challenges that plagued the independent-minded Tennessean could also signal trouble for any Republicans like Johnson who were elected in 2010 with substantial tea party support and who end up in leadership.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who served as Majority Whip and Majority Leader in the House, said Alexander would “have more leeway as an individual Member who is not a leader of the caucus.”
A senior Republican Senate aide adding that serving in leadership requires Members to give the team and the Conference at least equal consideration with their personal position when determining their actions on issues and legislation.
“These guys would have a terrible time in leadership,” this aide said when asked how the Republican Conference’s tea party favorites would fit in on the team. “It’s hard to message for the Conference if you’re a rogue.”
Johnson, a surprise winner over then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D) last year, is running for GOP Conference vice chairman, the No. 5 leadership position and one in which he would be expected to help set the party’s public relations strategy. That post is opening because current Vice Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) is running for the Policy Committee chairman slot being vacated by Sen. John Thune (S.D.), who wants to take over for Alexander.
Johnson immediately received the support of Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a rising star in the Republican Party, a tea party darling and an often-mentioned presidential or vice presidential prospect. Rubio made it clear Wednesday that he has no interest in seeking a leadership position. Rubio said in an interview that he has not given any thought to whether ideological consistency is compatible with serving in leadership. But Johnson indicated that he doesn’t see it the two as mutually exclusive.
“If [my colleagues] are going to support me for this thing, I’m not going to change,” Johnson told Roll Call. “You can speak the truth very respectfully. That would be my intention.”
But all Members of leadership eventually find themselves faced with a piece of politically complicated legislation that requires them to make a choice. They can choose personal ideology and attempt to use their position to influence strategy in that direction — a scenario that might end up angering colleagues in leadership and elements of the Conference that probably don’t agree with them — or they can choose to compromise and work to achieve a party consensus position, relegating to the backseat their personal preference in the process.
One former Senate Republican leadership aide recalled in an interview Tuesday a time when a multifaceted bill was being negotiated by the Democratic and Republican leaders, as both attempted to craft a bill that could pass muster with the majority of their conferences. This former aide’s boss did not approve of the bill and expressed private frustration at being faced with a choice between angering fellow leaders as well as a substantial portion of the Conference and using his position to influence policy — the reason he had sought the post in the first place.
This leader ultimately chose ideology over consensus, and it caused a rift. The former Republican leadership aide said nearly every Member of leadership inevitably finds himself in this difficult position — and must choose. The aide said that for any Member of the GOP freshman class of 2010 who came to Washington, D.C., to challenge the establishment, the contradiction in remaining ideologically consistent with serving in leadership could be particularly acute.
“I can remember a number of fights with the Leader,” this former aide said. “My boss’s philosophy was, ‘Why the hell am I in leadership if I can’t stop bad policy from happening in the early stages of a leadership negotiation?’ So he essentially took the issue back to other Members who shared his view and spun up opposition. The Leader went through the roof because he felt my boss had worked to undercut his position as Leader by taking this info outside closed doors.”
Johnson is a member of an outspoken and conservative freshman class that includes Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Rubio. Ayotte has been mentioned as a potential leadership candidate, particularly because she is adept at discussing fiscal issues and would lend some gender diversity to the GOP leadership team. Other Republicans elected last year, including Blunt and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), are seen as having a future in leadership if they seek it.
Sen. Mike Johanns, who has not ruled out seeking a leadership post, said it would be helpful for the Conference to have a Member of the 2010 freshman class in leadership.
The Nebraska lawmaker said he was encouraged by Johnson’s entry into the race for Conference vice chairman. He said he doesn’t think serving in leadership would be problematic for his opinionated colleague: “It sends a message to the country and to the Republican Party that this new group is here and having an effect.”