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July 30, 2011 9:10 AM Boehner forgets what he’s doing, and why he’s doing it

By Steve Benen

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), just seven months into first term with the gavel, has had a few ups and downs. Given that he hasn’t approved any meaningful legislation, he’s been pushed around by extremists, and he can’t figure out how to get his caucus to follow his lead, it’s probably fair to say the downs have outnumbered the ups. The man is quite evidently a follower, not a leader.

And while it’s possible Boehner just needs more time to settle into his role, it’s also possible the Speaker doesn’t quite understand just yet what his role is in the American political process.

Norm Ornstein had a terrific item yesterday noting that Boehner fails to appreciate the very nature of his responsibilities. “Boehner is acting like a British parliamentary party leader,” Ornstein explained, “but in a system that cannot long function in divided government with a parliamentary party that reflexively votes no on everything a president or a leader of the other party proposes…. We have perhaps until August 1 for Boehner to act as a real speaker of the whole House.”

Ezra Klein takes this a step further, comparing Boehner’s understanding of the Speaker’s job to that of his immediate predecessor.

When Nancy Pelosi served as Speaker of the House, her job was conditioning her members for disappointment. It was Pelosi who had to bring them around to a Senate-designed health-care law that lacked a public option, a cap-and-trade bill that gave away most of its permits, a stimulus that did too little, a bank bailout that endangered their careers. Pelosi had to do that because, well, that’s what the speaker of the House has to do. To govern is to compromise. And when you’re in charge, you have to govern.

Lately, Boehner has not been governing. After he failed to pass a conservative resolution to the debt crisis without Democratic votes, he should have begun cutting the deals and making the concessions necessary to gain Democratic votes. That, after all, is what he will ultimately have to do. It’s what all this is supposed to be leading up to.

But Boehner went in the opposite direction. He made his bill more conservative. He indulged his members in the fantasy that they wouldn’t have to make compromises. It’s as if Pelosi, facing criticism for dropping the public option, had tried to shore up her support by bringing a single-payer health-care bill to the floor. Even if that would have pleased her left wing, what good would it have done her? Her job was to prepare her members to take a vote that could lead to a successful outcome.

It’s as if Boehner, desperate and afraid, temporarily forgot not only what he was doing, but why he was doing it. The point, after all, is to work towards a solution that would prevent a disaster the Speaker himself says he’s eager to avoid.

Instead, Boehner has spent at least two weeks tending to the self-esteem of right-wing lawmakers, telling them how great and important they are, and reinforcing their belief that they’ll never have to compromise with anyone on anything.

And today, instead of slowly trying to acclimate his caucus to reality, Boehner will lead them into yet another chest-thumping tantrum.

Boehner, at this point, seems principally concerned with his political survival, no matter the consequences for the rest of us. The nation needs a great Speaker of the House who can lead his chamber out of this mess, but the nation is stuck with a shrinking man who lacks the courage to lead.

The consequences for the country will likely prove to be severe in 87 hours.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Diane Rodriguez on July 30, 2011 9:19 AM:

    Boehner's crying episodes, grandiose gestures ( the oversized gavel) and general demeanor strongly suggest an alcoholic. In today's Congress the "good ol boy" hard drinking-back slapping-pork promising-golf playing-4 martini lunch thing doesn't have a prayer against the self righteous ignorance of the ultra conservative caucus. It's a good bet that John is nursing his bourbon and crying at this very moment.

    Now - imagine that he is 3rd in line for the Presidency. I certainly hope Rick Perry gets a helpful message during his revival extravaganza or we could be toast.

  • stormskies on July 30, 2011 9:22 AM:

    Yes, but just wait until the Sunday propaganda shows this Sunday. I bet every one of them will try to book him so that he can then 'frame' all this exactly the way he wants, uncontested by the corporate stooges who 'host' these propaganda events for the corporations that hire them. So then, of course, this propaganda framing by Boner and the corporate hosts will then become the 'narratives' and 'story lines' that get peddled by the corporate media in general for the following days.

  • c u n d gulag on July 30, 2011 9:23 AM:

    Too bad bin Laden didn't get a chance to live long enough to see what happens after 8/2. He would have LOVED IT!!!

    Boehner, McConnell, and the Tea-hadists will eventually do far, far more damage than the Jihadists did on 9/11.

    Somewhere, bin Laden is laughing his ass off!!!


    Congratulations, Republicans!

    You will have accomplished what the Brit's couldn't do twice.
    What the South couldn't do, despite their best efforts.
    What the Germans, Japanese, Vietnamese, and other countries who picked fights with us, or we picked fights with coulnd't accomplish.

    The Republicans will destroy our Republic.

    Well, maybe not completely- we'll still be a 3rd World Banana Republic, thanks to Banana Republicans.

  • Ronald on July 30, 2011 9:24 AM:

    Maybe I have been wrong and the Republicans don't hate Americans, They are just incredibly stupid. Naahh...They are both incredibly stupid and they hate Americans and want to destroy this Country. Bin Laden didn't even try this hard to destroy us. I really am having trouble wrapping my head around the Republican mindset.

  • Carolyn on July 30, 2011 9:27 AM:

    Boehner doesn't seem to get it, that he is the Speaker of the House, not just majority leader. That is Cantor. Pelosi operated as speaker of the whole house, and she and Hoyer shepherded the party. Boehner is obviously inept and does not have the good of the entire country at heart. I'm 71, and I've never seen this kind of intransigence and disrespect for the president and for the country, coming from an elected official.

  • sapient on July 30, 2011 9:40 AM:

    I'm still trying to figure out what the Republicans want this country to look like. Other than ruined.

  • Danp on July 30, 2011 9:50 AM:

    I'm still trying to figure out what the Republicans want this country to look like

    Think Zimbabwe, only in lighter hues.

  • burro on July 30, 2011 9:52 AM:


    Bonehead took in his first breath of water as soon as the gavel touched his hand. He's been floundering around and gurgling ever since.

    "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence"

    He's nothing special, and in this environment, his limitations have had every opportunity to be highlighted for the world to see. In his case, the highlights are absolutely blinding.

    "Banana Republicans" very nice. Thanks cund gulag. I'll add that to the list.

  • Brenna on July 30, 2011 9:59 AM:

    What the republicans are striving for eludes me too. If they put hardship and poverty on the middle class and poor how does that serve businesses. How does that serve anyone?

    Is this just a game of power? Is there any rational, intelligent thought behind it?

  • Extreme Moderate on July 30, 2011 9:59 AM:

    Hey Steve, did I miss something or did McConnell tell Reid that he would not negotiate with him over Reid's bill? I'm wondering because it almost seems like Reid is negotiating with himself at the moment...this would confirm it...Does this mean we will get white house involvement again, presumably because McConnell thinks he can get a better deal from Obama?..who is such a great negotiator...:)

  • ChicagoRob on July 30, 2011 10:00 AM:

    I was struck by this recitation of Pelosi's "successes":


    When Nancy Pelosi served as Speaker of the House, her job was conditioning her members for disappointment. It was Pelosi who had to bring them around to a Senate-designed health-care law that lacked a public option, a cap-and-trade bill that gave away most of its permits, a stimulus that did too little, a bank bailout that endangered their careers. Pelosi had to do that because, well, that’s what the speaker of the House has to do.

    I'm a Democrat, and I didn't like the above at the time, and I don't like it now. It reminds me why I won't again vote for Obama.

  • Katherine Calkin on July 30, 2011 10:01 AM:

    Steve: Of all the bloggers writing about the debt ceiling melee, your coverage and commentary is the best and most helpful.

  • rpg on July 30, 2011 10:04 AM:

    Steve,
    I am beginning to see an opportunity here for Boehner, Dems, and sane GOPers that saves Boehner's speakership and saves the country from the TPers. The TPers are a distinct minority in the House. If Boehner, Dems, and sane GOPers agree to a governing coalition, the TPers are rendered irrelevant. In this way, Boehner no longer needs the TPers.

    While Norm has a point, I think a parliamentary approach might be what we need: a governing, multi-partisan coalition. Admittedly, this would require lots of folks to change their behavior and take some seriously risky political positions, from those on the left & right, while putting the good of the country first.

    I understand this could make for some bloody primaries. However, the magic number is 217 (216 at the moment due to vacant seats). Ask 100 GOPers and 100 Dems to take the plunge and work for the last 17 votes from both sides.

    The bigger risk is for GOPers... let them take a lesson from Sen Murkowski. Anticipate the probable TP primary challenge and possible primary defeat, be prepared to go a third way for a winning general election. If a governing coalition style House can produce results over the next 12 months, the general election can be a cakewalk.

  • wab on July 30, 2011 10:08 AM:

    It's now time to think what bills the government should not pay come the default.

    I suggest that first and foremost, congressmen (and women) should not be paid their salaries.

    And anything that will affect Republicans more than Democrats should not be paid, e.g. agricultural subsidies (which are stupid in any case).

    Who gets to decide what does and does not get paid?

  • FRP on July 30, 2011 10:10 AM:

    Boehner has his eye on what another from his coterie of prized memories , and those more importantly of what he remembers being told would happen regarding a poor or wrong choice .
    Debbie decided the price was worth it to get to Dallas .
    Boehner has very little time to be as good as Debbie .
    Was the price of selling America without representation worth it ?
    I know its just a job , why even Boehner can rise above the salty tang of remorse and get right into rationalizing how Eisenhower was a Commie .
    Thats the spirit Johnie me boy !
    The John Birchers Call ,
    And the drunks , bigots , and idiots answer

    America for the chosen ones only
    Give us your walled community
    Your well washed ennui of hundreds
    Oh and one ring to kiss em all .

  • Mimikatz on July 30, 2011 10:12 AM:

    The Banan Republicans are mostly from rural or exurban areas in the South and Midwest, and are pretty ignorant about history and economics, even politics and how it works. They have for the most part led fairly insular lives, associating with people just like them. They have little real breadth of experience. Their ideal seems to be something like Jefferson's yeoman farmers ruled over by the robber barons of the end of the 19th century. They are really out of touchnwith the realm problems facing us, how to have higher employment in a global age and climate change.

    And as I watch Boehner's antics all I can think of is Bob Dylan's lyrics,

    "And here I sit so patiently, trying to find out what price
    we have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice".
    (Memphis Blues Again).

  • JM917 on July 30, 2011 10:18 AM:

    @ rpg: You're quite right; the only intelligent way out of this increasingly ugly mess is a coalition in the House of the Dems and what's left of the sane Republicans.

    But Boehner is simply too stupid and too hung up on maintaining his "leadership" to see this.

    Welcome to the new "Guns of August."

    And Katherine Calkin is right, too: Steve, you've been magnificent in reporting and commenting on this.

  • rpg on July 30, 2011 10:20 AM:

    To my fellow Chicagoan, ChicagoRob:

    I am a Democrat. I cut my political teeth campaigning for Bobby Kennedy. I honed my political teeth getting President Obama elected.

    You are wanting to play the same zero-sum game the TPers are playing. It doesn't work that way and for good reason: the House is the house of all the people, the President is the president of all the people.

    A zero-sum game strategy guarantees we will get crap for sausage regardless of which party is the majority in the House. And your comment vis-a-vis President Obama suggests your nose, cut off to spite your face, is going to be part of the crap sausage.

  • Anonymous on July 30, 2011 10:20 AM:

    The one skill of the dear Speaker:

    Perfecting puerile politics precluding any productive process to produce policy regarding his professed purpose, jobs!

    Instead of promoting effective government, Boehner has now putridly pooped on the American people, for what?

    Self-professed principles?

    The Tea Party is not a promising lot - it harbors too many opportunistic, profiteering peeps! -Kevo

  • Rich on July 30, 2011 10:21 AM:

    He's basically an Ohio Republican in the mold of McKinley (a weak president under the sway of bosses) or Warren Harding (a tool of corrupt interests), rather than Taft (although the last taft, who governed Ohio for two terms wasa thorough going incompetent, too).

    The teabaggers function in a way not unlike the Blue Dogs, as spoilers. Like the Blue Dogs, they are beholden to social conservatives and business interests, while representing parts of the South or rural/exurban stretches elsewhere. But even the Blue Dogs could compromise--at least some of them, some of the time, and they seemed to have a grasp of basic civics. The teabaggers may be castigated by various establishment figures, but they have big money and shrewd behind the scenes leadership (e.g., Delay)(.

    Boehner is a hack and hacks can do well as Speaker because of their willingness to accept reality and make deals. Hastert was in this mold. Minority and majority leasers can also fill some of this role: Michel, Gephardt, Hoyer, the list goes on... Unfortunately, Boehner doesn't have it in him to be in their class. He's a cheesy box salesman who got lucky because his local Rep had a fondness for jailbait. In someways, it would be worse if Cantor had the job, but he would be an easier figure to truly vilify whereas the golf-playing, perma-tan, crybaby is too pathetic for that.

  • rpg on July 30, 2011 10:26 AM:

    JM917:

    Boehner is not stupid. Yes, he would like to remain Speaker for many right reasons. What I am suggesting is a way for Boehner to not only remain Speaker but, become a great Speaker for all Americans. What I proposed, supra, is predicated my understanding that Boehner can actually pull it off. This is Boehner's opportunity to be the next Sam Rayburn.

  • stinger on July 30, 2011 10:32 AM:

    If Boehner quits/is dumped as Speaker, who steps in? Cantor? McConnell? I don't know the protocol. But my real question is, would that be any better? Is there any hope for competency, or are we all SOL until after the next election when the teabaggers are booted out (let me dream).

    lanytG Gett ??? Only captcha would call those "words".

  • Bloix on July 30, 2011 10:33 AM:

    You don't understand. These people are revolutionaries. They think our system is utterly corrupt and they intend to smash it. You keep talking like they are participants in a two-party democratic system, when what they're trying to do is to establish a one-party state and they really don't care what damage has to be done to the economy in order to get there. You're like a guy who worries that if the arsonists aren't careful they might accidently set something on fire.

  • ceilidth on July 30, 2011 10:34 AM:

    I think what you are missing is that the Republicans like Boehner are so focused on getting rid of Obama and taking over the Senate as well as the House in 2012 that they don't care about governing now. They are putting on a show and nothing any Democrat will do is enough because the Democrats are the devil incarnate. The United States economy, credit rating and reputation are just collateral damage along with the way toward a future governed by right wing Christianists on the social side and Ayn Rand's accolytes on the economic side. The Tea Party tantrums are just evidence that they don't to govern because they don't believe in government. Hard as it is to believe, they want the government to fail.

  • Ron Byers on July 30, 2011 10:44 AM:

    Newt Gingrich bears a lot of the blame for the current situation. When he was speaker he deliberately ruled not as Speaker of the House (the whole house) but as the Majority leader of a party. The Democrats were totally ignored as he ruled with 50% + 1 of the Republican Caucus and an iron demand that 100% of Republicans stick with him. He never reached across the isle. Gingrich moved power from the committee chairs to his office. He ruled the Republicans with an iron hand. That was unprecidented, but became the Republican model.

    Before Gingrich powerful speakers were not above going to the other side of the isle to cut deals. Of course, those speakers cared more about the institution than Newt and they really cared about the legislation more than Newt and any of his Republican successors.

    The biggest problem with the Gingrich style of leadership is it falls apart when there is a weak leader. A weak leader can't get much done in any event, but he or she can't get anything done if confronted with a large, focused minority in his or her own caucus. In the old days the Speaker had the ability to keep people in line with perks and privileges, and not a little pork. Post Gingrich and post earmarks, Boehner has none of those tools. The result is a weak Speaker that can't control a large vocal minority of ideologues.

  • c u n d gulag on July 30, 2011 10:49 AM:

    They don't want to govern.

    They have no intention of governing.

    They only want to rule.

    And the coming 'Dominionist Christian Corporatist States of America' (DCCSA) will allow them to do so.

    And those of us who are not suppportive - well, does anyone really think that they DON'T mean what they say when they use eliminationist rhetoric?

    "See you in the Gulag."

    I'll save you a lower bunk.

  • Skip on July 30, 2011 11:27 AM:

    With no higher goal than simply wanting to destroy Obama, the GOP is destroying government, the nation's future, and themselves in the process. After they succeed, the little people will look to the sawdust-filled life vests of Rupert Murdock, Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh and the like to save them, but these so-called conservative champions will be the first to retreat behind their wealth, their gated communities, hired guns, and stockpiled luxuries. It's those first shocked looks of rudderless panic on Main Street Republican faces when their idols abandon them that will signal the radical change needed to dispel this nation's political fog.

  • c4Logic on July 30, 2011 11:42 AM:

    Occams razor -- Republicans have a very low order of intelligence. In other words, you have to be a cretinous imbecile to be a Republican.

  • JM917 on July 30, 2011 11:46 AM:

    rpg: I agree that this is the moment at which Boehner could nip into a phone booth, peel off his clown suit, and emerge as the nation's savior, our new Disraeli or Churchill.

    But he won't. Whether it's stupidity, or lack of imagination, or an alcoholic stupor, or blind ambition to be the GOP's top dog, or whatever, isn't particularly important. (I suspect it's all of the above.) Boehner is far too provincial to have any idea of how any alternative to the present disastrous course could work.

    I fear that we're going to end up with technical default and a global market crash on Tuesday. Whether or not Obama will then invoke the 14th is anyone's guess. He's got the brains to see that this is his way out, but does he have the guts (or what Bachmann would call the "hoots pah")?

    Captcha: ntessen suffering, That's for sure!

  • dweb on July 30, 2011 11:52 AM:

    Steve.....you talk of Boehner's "leadership" or lack of it, but for me, the real problem seems very clear. It isn't a matter of Boehner's leadership but of the fact that a significant number of his caucus has no interest in following.

    In the "ideal" world, a leader proposed and party members fell in line. Inevitably there would be times when they had to grit their teeth to do it, but they went along, and a leader remembered those times and found ways to reward them later for their loyalty.

    But now we have a group of zealots. They are messianic in their belief that they were elected to serve as a mission to change the system. They see the compromises of the past as one of the things they are committed to getting rid of. Compromise, in their eyes, is why we have what they see as the evils of the present system....a "welfare" state, too much regulation (except when it comes to abortion and gay marriage), not enough "self reliance" (meaning elimination of the social safety net.).

    You could be Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson or Dwight Eisenhower in charge of a fractious coalition of multi-national armed forces and if these folks were among your "followers", you would be headed for a nervous breakdown. Boehner is not a great or even a good leader, but worst of all, too few of his party members are willing to follow him or anyone who doesn't do absolutely everything they demand.

  • rpg on July 30, 2011 12:00 PM:

    JM917:
    I share you concerns and reservations. However, I am not prepared to foreclose on the possible. In fact, it is critical that we offer Boehner the possibility.

    Again, a zero-sum game is not an option.

    I have fears as well. However, fear does not control me or you, or Boehner at the moment. Closing doors before they are actually closed is not good politics.

    More importantly, JM917, you really need to understand you are empowering TPers with your zero-sum gaming. What we are facing today requires adult supervision. Unfortunately, you are not making anything easier.

  • samsa on July 30, 2011 1:29 PM:

    Whatever the opinion of the pundits are, Boehner's approach has yielded the results which are closer to what the base wants than what Pelosi could accomplish, with the added advantage that what the Republican base wants is being offered by the opposition so that the Democrats will ultimately bear all the bricks and stones that will be thrown by those adversely affected by the cuts.

    Pelosi's accomplishments have led to just the opposite. The results are as far from the wishes of the base as possible, and the President and the Dems continue to be successfully branded as socialists for bringing government into the health care business.

    It's clear as to who is better for the party in majority.

  • CDW on July 30, 2011 2:03 PM:

    The only thing you can blame on Boehner, really, is a narcissistic desire to stay in power. It was a question of getting a deal even though he knew the deal he got was pointless, or admitting failure outright and probably losing his office.

  • burro on July 30, 2011 10:00 PM:

    Brenna @ 9:59 AM:

    "Is this just a game of power? Is there any rational, intelligent thought behind it?"

    Yes Brenna, it is just a game of power. It is as crass and shallow and selfish and fraudulent as it seems. The rationale is to bring down, (and the sooner the better, for repubco), President Obama, the current gov't, and to disembowel the Democratic party and everything that a Democrat would theoretically stand for.

    Make no mistake, this isn't a power play, it's a POWER PLAY. They want all the marbles. They don't want anybody else to participate, except to provide symbolic cover for their nefarious deeds.

    There's no point in overthinking this, or in giving repubco any semblance of credit for having underlying motives that might add up to more than just a coup by coagulated chaos.

    I really don't know what to think of our fine president anymore, but however this debt bullshit comes out, the rats will have crap lined up to keep President Obama and the U.S. gov't fighting for survival.

    This is worth reading:

    http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/07/20117277177305221.html

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