The Conservative Leader Who Doesn't Want to Lead

Jim Jordan's colleagues have pushed for him to be a chairman, whip, even Speaker. For now, he's the GOP leadership's most important intraparty foe.

Above the black floor mats of the Ron McCunn Wrestling Room at Graham High School in St. Paris, Ohio hangs a sign displaying Rep. Jim Jordan's guiding aphorism.

In big white cursive letters, it reads, "'Discipline: Doing what you don't want to do, when you don't want to do it.'—Coach McCunn."

Jordan recites his now-deceased wrestling coach's favorite saying when philosophizing on how to lead. But for this two-time NCAA-wrestling-champion-turned-politician, leading seems to be the thing he does not want to do.

His colleagues have voted for him to be House speaker, a position for which he said he has no ambition. They encouraged him to run for majority whip against Steve Scalise, an undertaking he declined. And he was reluctantly drafted into a late candidacy for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee gavel, which he lost.

Finally, when a group of Far-Right members spun off the conservative Republican Study Committee, they drafted Jordan to chair their House Freedom Caucus—again, against his will. He agreed, but since the chairmanship changes every year, he already is looking forward to handing it over to a colleague in January.

"I didn't want to," he said. "But for whatever reason they said, 'Jim Jordan, you're stuck with it.'"

Jordan's ambitions are hard to pin down. He chaired the RSC for a term years ago but has avoided such positions since. When asked why, Jordan squirms as if he's trying to break a crossface cradle on the gym mat. "I don't like to talk about myself," he said. But reluctantly, and seemingly painfully, he offers:

"My role has always been to work with a conservative group and try to push things in the direction that I think is consistent with where our party's at and what we're supposed to do," Jordan said. "I've always just felt like that's where I was supposed to be."

The Freedom Caucus, then, is the right place for him. He has proven himself over the past several months to be the House GOP leaders' most formidable intraparty opponent. And he has done so by engaging in the kind of strong-arm tactics that had been considered anathema before, but ones for which this group of members had been clamoring.

"Folks who know us know we're reasonable and can work with us, and they know that's Jim. They also know if we get in a fight, we get in a fight, and that's Jim too," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, another founder of the Freedom Caucus. "To a certain extent, his personality has sort of overflowed into the rest of the organization."

Jordan said he thinks the strategy has been a success. The Export-Import Bank has not been reauthorized in no small part because of insistence from the group and Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling that it lapse. When a controversial trade vote came up, Jordan and his cohorts voted against a procedural motion in order to block it, a move once deemed out-of-bounds. That forced leaders to rethink their game plan.

And when leaders singled out Rep. Mark Meadows for punishment for that insolence, Jordan sparred with House Speaker John Boehner over the move at a tense GOP conference meeting. Then Jordan maneuvered behind closed doors to block Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz from stripping Meadows of a subcommittee gavel, even skipping a Judiciary Committee vote in order to attend a private meeting to settle the issue.

"We don't like to vote against rules. We don't set out to do that. That's not our goal by any means," Jordan said. But, he added, "we feel like we should use every legislative tool that we can."

That attitude has built up goodwill with his conservative colleagues, many of whom are frustrated with their leaders for not enacting more right-leaning policies over their past several terms in the House majority.

"For me, as a conservative, he has demonstrated he can take the heat. We know when he goes into a back room, he's going to negotiate with our conservative principles in mind," Freedom Caucus member Rep. Tim Huelskamp said. "Jim's the guy that understands and connects best with us."

Yet by holding back their votes on all but the purest legislation, conservatives make it harder to secure incremental victories, others contend. Rep. Devin Nunes, a former Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee chairman, said he believes that the House could have passed a fast-track mechanism for a trade agreement without worker displacement measures sought by Democrats if Jordan and his group had helped instead of hindered their leaders.

"Their tactics cause us to move left when you look at final product. It's fine—it's fun and games, I guess—for some to be here and have their voting card and not ever really do anything," Nunes said. "The exotic members spun up, started fundraising, didn't even know what they were talking about, and then forced us to go work with Democrats to go and get it passed."

But it's not all acrimony with leaders. Jordan communicates with leadership well and often, said aides and members, and leaders in turn at least respect that Jordan is sincere in his convictions. Though his relationship with Boehner, his home-state colleague, is chilly, Jordan entered Congress in the same class as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The two were very close during their first term. As McCarthy took on a leadership role in the majority, the two drifted apart but they still talk. McCarthy hosted Jordan and the Freedom Caucus recently to discuss a short-term reauthorization of highway funding.

That communication will be paramount coming out of the August recess. Leaders will have to fund the government and avoid a breach of the debt limit, and both may require votes from Jordan and his rogues. But the support is anything but assured.

Last week, Jordan offered rare praise to leadership for bringing up the short-term highway bill. He lauded the strategy of being proactive so that the Senate would be less likely to tack a measure reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank to a highway bill.

But, he said, he had issues with how leadership paid for the bill. Leaders may have hoped he would support it anyway—doing what he didn't want to do, when he didn't want to do it—for the larger good of the party.

When it came to the floor, he voted "nay."