July 28, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
A Republican extremist has found a reason to be coy
That’s what happens when you fear defeat by a Democrat.
The Post’s Aaron Blake wrote a piece this week on Republican Ken Buck. The focus was the Colorado congressman’s “counter-programming.” He has taken positions against the grain, not as a moderate of a Republican Party in thrall to Donald Trump, but as a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the dominant faction of the extremist right.
This, as Blake said, might not be worth mentioning if Buck already had one foot out the door. We have seen Republicans aplenty who have stood up to say that their “party is going down the wrong path in the Trump era,” but only after they’ve announced that they’re retiring.
Buck hasn’t said whether he will seek reelection. “He raised just $39,000 last quarter — a very low number for an incumbent,” Blake said. But whether he will or won’t seems to be beside the point.
To me, the point is that Ken Buck is an extremist who has found a reason to be coy. I don’t know about you, but coy is not a quality I associate with extremists. Moderates, yes. But extremists? No.
What if continuing to move right is no longer practical? What if the Republicans have met the limits of that way of thinking?
Make no mistake, Ken Buck is an extremist.
He’s one of the original “Tea Party insurgents” who swept the House in 2010, paving the way for Donald Trump and everything that he represents. Buck “played into the idea that Democrats might ‘steal’ elections,” Blake wrote Thursday. “He’s floated the idea that global warming is a ‘hoax.’ And [on CNN recently, he led] the charge against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, invoking the label ‘traitor’ and later blaming him for Americans dying of fentanyl.”
Yet lately he sounds like a regular institutionalist. He’s doubted “the wisdom and constitutionality of [House] impeachment-related efforts,” Blake wrote. He called them “impeachment theater.” He has “expressed faith” in the FBI. And, Blake wrote, “he is among the relatively few Republicans to treat the criminal charges against [Trump] seriously, even saying a conviction would be disqualifying in his mind.”
His position on impeachment seems most suggestive.
While the rest of the House Freedom Caucus is prepared to obstruct must-pass appropriations bills (think: government shutdown) unless Speaker Kevin McCarthy greenlights a phony impeachment of Joe Biden, for the purpose of paying back the Democrats for twice impeaching Trump, Buck seems more interested in bringing home the bacon to constituents in Colorado’s fourth district. “He even accused the speaker of distracting from key appropriations issues,” Blake wrote.
“What [McCarthy is] doing is he’s saying ‘there’s a shiny object over here, and we’re really going to focus on that,’” he said. “I don’t think it’s responsible for us to talk about impeachment. When you are raising the I-word, it sends a message to the public, and it sets expectations.”
The conventional wisdom has been, since Buck took office 13 years ago, that Republican incumbents must become increasingly extreme. If they don’t continually move to the right, someone somewhere, who’s even extreme, will primary them out of existence. Since 2010, Republican incumbents haven’t feared Democrats. They feared other Republicans.
But what if continually moving right is no longer practical? What if the Republicans have met the limits of that thinking? I think they have.
Conditions have changed dramatically since 2010, as the consequences of continuing to move right have become transparent to most people most of the time. There are now good reasons for Republican extremists to moderate their speech and behavior? There are now good reasons for at least a few of them to sound like regular institutionalists.
I don’t know what those reasons would be. All I would do is point out the obvious – that since Donald Trump became the leader of the Republican Party, since he became the center of four unprecedented presidential crimes, the Republicans have lost three elections in a row.
Before the 2022 midterm, in which history defied the GOP, it was common to see Republicans who feared getting primaried going along with the extremists. Then they said they’re retiring or not seeking reelection. After that, they’d say a few things against the grain.
But now afterward, at least one of them, an original Tea Party insurgent, no less, has found a reason not to wait till retirement to say things against the grain. It’s almost like Ken Buck has recognized and accepted the practical need to play both sides – to sound like an extremist on some days and sound like an institutionalist on others. That’s not someone who fears defeat by a Republican challenger.
That’s someone who fears defeat by a Democrat.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.