Congressman Zinke and the Myth of His Leadership

John Boehner and Ryan Zinke

In the past few days, courtesy of quotes about himself and from his paid staffer who moonlights as an Internet troll, we’ve learned that Congressman Ryan Zinke seems to believe sincerely that he would make a good choice for the next Speaker of the House. His qualification for the office? Certainly not experience, as Zinke has been a member of the House for even less time than he’s been a conservative, which is about 18 months. The support of other members of Congress? Not so much—as the only member talking about Zinke as Speaker Ryan Zinke is Congressman Zinke.

What is it, then? What quality does he possess that so few do? Leadership. Leadership. Leadership. You, see, he’s got more leadership skills than anyone who’s currently in Congress, and perhaps more than anyone who has ever been a member of the body.

Now, I’m not a former Navy SEAL, so I can’t know what leadership is. Neither was Ronald Reagan, but I digress. So, I did what this English teacher encourages his students to do when they’re confronted with a new world and looked it up in the dictionary. Leadership boils down to the verb lead, which has two definitions that seem relevant:

to go before or with to show the way; conduct or escort.
to guide in direction, course, action, opinion

And that’s where Zinke’s claim to possess leadership falls apart. While he may have an excellent leader in the military (as the incomplete record of his service record he’s released seems to indicate), there’s no evidence at all that he can lead Congress, or even a small part of it.

It would be hard for Zinke to guide Congress in any direction, given his tendency to shift his political views as often as he mentions he was a SEAL. We’ve repeatedly chronicled his flip flops on abortion, Common Core, gun rights, marijuana, gay marriage, the environment, climate change, and almost every imaginable issue in his very brief political career, any of which would scuttle his bid to become Speaker once someone read the record aloud to the Freedom Caucus.

But it’s not just his lack of consistency or support or experience that will keep Zinke from becoming Speaker. His record as a member of Congress suggests anything but leadership.

Let’s start with one of his first actions as a member of Congress, where Zinke, after telling right-wing Montana radio that he would likely not support Speaker Boehner, the man he’s saying now lacks leadership to run Congress, voted for him, proud to hide behind the fact that his last name allowed him to vote after the issue had been decided.

And then on fast track, Zinke flipped his vote after being threatened by the current Republican leadership. Weeks before voting for the TPP, leader Zinke told the right wing press that the bill was bad for America:

“I support a robust economy where agriculture and businesses are able to compete in a fair and open global market,” Zinke told Breitbart News. “However, we are talking about giving Barack Obama — a president who negotiates with rogue nations like Iran and Cuba — exorbitant authority to do what he thinks is best. Just look at the bad deal he’s crafting with Iran. At this time, I don’t have faith that President Obama will negotiate in the best interest of Montana or America.”

So what about Zinke’s practical leadership in Congress? Earlier this month, the House Natural Resources Committee where Zinke sits voted 16-22 against reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which without taxpayer expense, protects millions of acres of public land. Despite claiming that the LWCF was a priority, and issuing press releases to the Montana media about the importance of the measure, Congressman Zinke could not lead one Republican member of his committee to vote with him. And somehow we’re supposed to believe that he can lead the fractured, increasingly irrational House Republicans?

Finally, Zinke’s self-promotion about his bid for the Speaker’s gavel belies his claims of leadership. Despite his assertions that the United States is in a constitutional crisis and “circling the drain,” that Congress needs a strong leader, and that he can lead the House effectively, he’s not even announced that he’ll run. Instead, he’s scurried off to conservative media outlets and issued press releases to the Montana media and ducking their questions, all suggesting in the bold leadership style of a man of destiny that he’s “mulling,” “considering,” and “undecided.” Leadership.

Surprisingly, Zinke’s Communications Director did manage to, unintentionally, explain why he won’t the Speaker, writing in her characteristically professional style on Twitter:

It’s not that Zinke is too liberal or too conservative. It’s simply that no one who has followed his political career can possibly trust the man. How can conservatives trust someone who claimed just a few years ago that he was a moderate who supported some gun control measures and abortion rights? How can the seven remaining moderate Republicans trust someone who pals around with Louie Gohmert and spends most of his time in Congress giving interviews to the right wing press asserting that the President isn’t a patriot?

Zinke will not be the next Speaker of the House. This whole charade is most likely an effort to boost his national profile, get some fawning attention from the Montana press, and raise enough money to pay off his campaign debts from 2014. That those ambitions happen to coincide with Zinke’s astonishing level of self-regard and almost pathological need for attention is just a happy accident.

I’d like to think that the Montana press might ask some hard questions about Zinke’s latest round of self-promotion, but the evidence suggests that won’t happen. Asking for the names of fellow members of Congress who support his bid, as he asserts some do, would be an excellent start.

But maybe someone—in his staff, in his family, in his coterie of fawning media members–can at least explain to the Congressman that ambition is not a synonym for leadership.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • Don — Great article! Seems like he cannot even lead his staff as he stated that his appearances for last week were on his website but were not.

  • Don, you mention that Zinke’s Speaker bid might “get some fawning attention from the Montana press.” Well here’s some from the Missoulian, which every Friday hands out “chokecherries” (bad) and “huckleberries” (good) on various issues:
    “Huckleberries to Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke for pondering a possible run for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. As a freshman congressman, Zinke may be a long-shot candidate but he could bring a fresh perspective to the entrenched interests in Washington. And Montana, with only one vote in the 435-member House, could benefit from having a more influential voice in Congress.”
    I’m not sure what that “fresh perspective’ would be – perhaps alienating both conservatives and moderates within his own party, and all the Democrats.

  • Democrats criticize Zinke’s attention-seeking with attention-seeking of their own. All this pot-calling-the-kettle black meowing could be in part caused by a lack of confidence or self-esteem. But without a candidate of their own, there’s not much else to talk about. right? Point to Zinke by default.

  • Pete, if Montana Democrats were smart and would extend their vision past 2016 into the next election cycle, they would be hoping and praying Zinke would get the Speaker of the House position. It would give Zinke a good reason to stay in the House in 2018 and not challenge Tester in the Senate race – a challenge smart Tester loyalists are praying doesn’t happen. While Speaker of House isn’t a likelihood at this stage of his political career, Zinke can take credit for the vote of confidence he received from House Republicans who encouraged him to even consider a run for the position and can focus on defeating Denise Juneau who will soon announce she is running for the 2016 US House seat.

    • Interesting strategy, Pogo, and I can see the merit in it, but:
      1) Zinke won’t be Speaker.
      2) The people advancing Zinke for Speaker were Zinke.
      3) Juneau takes out Zinke in 2016.
      4) Ergo, no 2018 Tester/Zinke race.

      • Pete – In response:
        1) We both agree Zinke won’t be speaker now. Zinke made it clear Paul Ryan was the key person. With Paul Ryan in, Zinke and everyone else is out.
        2) There were others in DC (per my personal contacts) talking to Zinke about running for Speaker if Paul Ryan didn’t run which would have opened up the field to almost anyone.
        3. Juneau loses to Zinke in 2016. She barely won her last election against a weak GOP opponent.
        4. As a second term US House member, Zinke will be the lead person being pushed by both the national and state GOP to run against Tester. While the decision will be his to make, the odds are he will run for Senate in 2018.

        How about a friendly wager on the 2016 Zinke/Juneau race? 🙂 You pick the losing payoff.

    • Of course, it would be good for Democrats who want to get rid of Zinke to have him somehow magically ascend to the Speaker’s chair. That doesn’t change the absurdity of his effort to advance himself.

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