Political Animal


July 10, 2011 9:45 AM The incredible shrinking Speaker

By Steve Benen

On Thursday, President Obama asked the top eight officials in Congress — four from each party — and Vice President Biden to express a preference about a debt-reduction target. Should the negotiations focus on a more modest series of cuts ($2 trillion), a larger package in line with the Biden-led talks ($3 trillion to $3.5 trillion), or a more ambitious approach (roughly $4 trillion)?

Of the 10 people in the room, eight, including all the Democrats, said they want to go big. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was one of them, “enthusiastically” endorsing the notion of a grand bargain, telling Republican lawmakers that bold action is necessary, and that this is why he wanted to be Speaker in the first place.

Two of the 10 balked. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said there’s no point in trying to strike a grand bargain because rank-and-file Republicans will never accept a compromise on revenue.

As of yesterday, Boehner abandoned his plan and came around to Cantor’s and Kyl’s way of thinking. The Speaker discovered his caucus just wasn’t willing to follow him.

The sweeping deal Obama and Boehner had been discussing would have required both parties to take a bold leap into the political abyss. […]

[Some] Republicans said Boehner had finally realized that he could not sell the tax framework within his party. Many House Republicans, particularly the influential 87-member freshman class, won elections vowing to never raise taxes. At a Thursday meeting at the White House, Cantor said the tax package could not pass the House. And at a Friday morning news conference, every member of Boehner’s leadership team denounced the idea of including tax increases in the debt legislation.

As a substantive matter, the anti-tax extremism that dominates Republican politics is well past the point of being farcical. Given a chance to cut the debt by $4 trillion, GOP leaders who claim to be frantic about a non-existent debt crisis have been exposed as frauds.

But the political issue that stands out for me is realizing just how weak a Speaker Boehner really is.

He started this debt-limit process saying, “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part.” Republicans proceeded to ignore him. This week, Boehner believed he had the power and influence to convince at least most of his caucus to rise to the occasion. Republicans proceeded to ignore this, too. Even the Speaker’s own leadership team didn’t want to follow him, and in the end, it looks like Cantor understood the extremist attitudes of the caucus far better than the Speaker did.

The Speaker of the House is arguably one of the most powerful offices in the government, at least in theory. It’s supposed to be within Boehner’s power to simply tell his caucus what they have a responsibility to do, and demand their fealty.

But a leader with no followers is, by definition, weak. Boehner may be the Speaker, but as he’s quickly realizing, he’s taking the orders, not giving them.

In the asylum known as the House of Representatives, is there any doubt as to the inmates’ power?

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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  • Ted Frier on July 10, 2011 9:53 AM:

    Boehner's obviously a well-meaning clown, but I'm not sure it matters if the speaker is strong or weak. The divide he is trying to close is bridgeable, between the remnants of a once responsible Republican Party that treats treats government and national leadership seriously and a revolutionary movement that simply doesn't and, like all revolutionary movements, seriously believes that all problems will be solved once the present "tyrannical" and "corrupt" regime is destroyed, the current "elite" eliminated

  • foosion on July 10, 2011 9:54 AM:

    You appear to be confusing Boehner's public statements with what he really wants. The public statements are just a way to fluff the Villagers

    The deficit talks will result in cuts that hurt the Democrats and their base and benefit the Republicans and their base. This is a win for Boehner.

  • Ted Frier on July 10, 2011 9:55 AM:

    Let me try that again:

    Boehner's obviously a well-meaning clown, but I'm not sure it matters if the speaker is strong or weak. The divide he is trying to close is un-bridgeable, between the remnants of a once responsible Republican Party that treats government and national leadership seriously and a revolutionary movement that simply doesn't and, like all revolutionary movements, believes that all problems will be solved once the present "tyrannical" and "corrupt" regime is destroyed, the current "elite" eliminated

  • c u n d gulag on July 10, 2011 9:55 AM:

    You can almost feel sorry for this poor schmuck.

    But you know, when you don't potty training and discipline a child early, it's too late to do it when they're 22 and sh*tting on the floor naked and screaming.

    But he's not the only one to blame. The entire party embraced the John Birch racists this time around, unlike back in the '60's. And now guys like Hatch, and other doctrinaire Conservatives are insufficiently rabid.

    How do you like your monster now, Dr's. Frankensteins?

  • skeptonomist on July 10, 2011 9:59 AM:

    Boehner didn't get to be speaker by being a powerless dummy. Steve seems to be going along with the idea that resistance to increased taxes on rich people and corporations is some sort of grass-roots movement which is dictating to the Republican leadership - this makes very little sense.

    If there's one thing we know about Republicans, and many Democrats as well, it's that they are doing the bidding of rich people and corporations who make campaign donations. Most people who are not politicians - including a very large fraction of Republicans - are in favor of increasing taxes on the rich. The resistance to taxes comes from the top. Republican strategists have somehow fooled a lot of people, apparently including Steve Benen, into swallowing the idea that the leaders are trying to be "responsible" but that the crazy Tea Partiers just won't give up unless rich people's taxes are reduced.

  • Danp on July 10, 2011 10:04 AM:

    Boehner is not like the baby-sitter tied up by a bunch of brats. He's more like the baby-sitter who wants the brats to think he's cool, so he blames the broken lamp on the absentee parents.

  • Silver Owl on July 10, 2011 10:11 AM:

    Today's republicans are quite the spineless creatures. They serve the rich and themselves. For all their talk that they are "strong" they are the weakest most groveling humans ever born and bred.

  • Ted Frier on July 10, 2011 10:21 AM:

    Conventional wisdom is that President Obama is becoming a sell-out on the American safety net.

    But it is also possible that Obama had found a way to turn the tables on Republicans and their hostage-taking strategy to get everything they want.

    Republicans think they can hold the debt ceiling hostage and blackmail Democrats into gutting the New Deal to prevent the country from going into default.

    Obama may believe he can do the same thing to Republicans by offering them a balanced package that spreads the pain by including Social Security and Medicare cuts in exchange for tax hikes on the rich -- an offer Obama's knows a radicalized Republican Party would never be able to accept, as Speaker Boehner's abandonment of summit talks vindicates.

    If the public is paying attention -- a big IF -- Boehner just provided one more proof that Republicans are ideological fanatics unfit to govern.

  • AtlasMugged on July 10, 2011 10:27 AM:

    The bottom line on this will be that the debt ceiling package will include at least some tax increases, and it will pass. It also will likely spell the end of Boehner's reign as Speaker. In some ways we're living 1994 over again, with a marginally less bombastic Newt Gingrich.

  • bdop4 on July 10, 2011 10:45 AM:

    "If the public is paying attention -- a big IF -- Boehner just provided one more proof that Republicans are ideological fanatics unfit to govern." - Ted Frier

    That's not a big "if." It's a monstrous "if."

    Being cute and too clever by half never makes it into the public consciousness. You have to make a marked contrast to your opponent in blunt terms.

    Shouldn't be too hard to do under the current circumstances, provided you haven't said anything that actually agrees with the opposition.


  • dalloway on July 10, 2011 10:54 AM:

    A prediction: as soon as whatever Frankenstein deal they come up with is reached and the debt ceiling is raised, Cantor will make his move and oust Boehner to become the new Speaker. I think this has been the House Tea Party agenda all along -- make Cantor Speaker while damaging Obama as much as possible.

  • bigtuna on July 10, 2011 10:57 AM:

    Ted. Not sure it matters what the "public" sees. I posted early from Nate Silver's work that if you focus on the votes, what matters are the 535 people who cast them. Boner's retreat signals to all that he is not able to get to 218 votes w/o some sort of deal with two [or three] wings of both parties. We have four wings: Radical Yahoo right; "responsible" right - ie, people who still have some clue about governance in the house republican wing; "centrist" dems - some of whom blend with repubs when working on fiscal matters, and the progressive dem wing, which has about the same number as the radical right.

    TO get to 218, either he starts at the radical right; however, as a practical matter, anything with the "t' word won't work, as Nancy P. has to give him votes to get to 218, which she won't do. SO, you are back to the middle two wings, which means by definition, a smaller deal of the Biden variety.

    I suspect the obamabots can count too, and played a straw man. They "went big" knowing it would not play, and everyone played their part - us, who are pissed that they are even discussing SS; Cantor, Kyl, etc...

    So we are back to "bipartisanship" blah blah bllah..

  • Chris on July 10, 2011 11:09 AM:

    If this was a tactical move on President Obama's part, then kudos to him. On the other hand, if he really intended to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits to achieve a "Grand Bargain", then I don't know what to make of him.

    Instead of going on offense, Obama defensively agreed to negotiate with hostage takers. Instead of going on offense, Obama has already agreed to a deficit reduction deal that, best case scenario, has $5 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue. Adding insult to injury, Obama has taken the 14th Amendment off the table (an economic crisis is evidently preferable to a constitutional crisis).

    Obama appears to have bought into right-wing talking point that deficit reduction is the best use of his time. Obama has made it clear that he believes that we're experiencing "structural" unemployment that somehow manifested overnight when Bear Stearns went under. Obama doesn't seem to believe that adding jobs and growing the economy reduces deficits, despite recent evidence.

    He seems to think that the best solution is the one in the middle, no matter far the right pulls that middle into their direction.

    I thought that I was electing a progressive, but instead I got a "center-right" president who wants to be liked more than he wants to lead. I'm so desperate right now, that I feel like running against the guy myself.

  • boatboy_srq on July 10, 2011 11:22 AM:

    Perhaps "Speaker of the House" isn't the correct title for Boehner.

    Given his apparent inability to sway his party, the correct title may be:

    "Spokesperson FOR the House."

    Spokesperson for the wingnut set in the House, to be sure, but at this point little more than the mouthpiece of the movement that continues to push him ahead of all the lemming Republicans right off the cliff rather than the voice of reason guiding them away.

    ... and Captcha says "endocrine. cstedio." Perhaps it IS a hormonal thing?

  • kevo on July 10, 2011 11:29 AM:

    Funny thing, most probably many of Boehner's friends on K Street and Wall Street would have gone to jail for the fraud they perpetrated upon the rest of us under their friend's leadership, one President Bush!

    The "Grand Bargain" was to pivot away from the first distraction (jobs, jobs, jobs in 2010) and toward the canard of "we're broke" so no one will bother to look back on the economic meltdown where the crooks didn't just not go to jail, but are now back to fleecing Middle Class Americans!

    In all this emergency-talk about "tightening our belts" and cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, where have the Bush Tax Cuts gone?

    Those Tax givebacks are the fundamental reason our society has a current economic mess on its hands! Yet, Boehner can't do a thing except run flak for those who would not pay their share. Until Boehner and his brand embrace revenue raising policies, they are only using rhetoric to "represent" the American people.Their real intent is to break this president, and continue the upward redistribution of wealth in this country by way of government policy (or lack thereof).

    Recent events reveal a war-like attitude among our Republican relations, not one beneficial to civil governance! Why?

    Because Boehner and company know their policies would inspire economic warfare, baby! -Kevo

  • Rich on July 10, 2011 11:57 AM:

    The position of Speaker often goes to an ineffectual hack. Gephardt was the best recent example on the Dem side. He was absolutely untrustworthy and lacked dynamism. Boehner is the same kind of character only even more craven and weaker in terms of his own party base. He's an old fashioned party man which means he bobs and weaves to appease his caucus, which itself has dumped more positions over the past few years than any in memory. he was a compromise between a true old guard figure and a newer guy like Cantor. Unfortunately, he has no base or principals of his own and he is singularly unable to be able to make and keep commitments. Purposely or not, Obama has put him in a position where he most certainly will destroy his career. Letting the kids like Cantor run things will be bad for the country and bring down the wrath of GOP friends on Wall Street, while doing the right thing and making a deal with Pelosi or members of her caucus means the end of any leadership career. If he goes, lord only knows who will replace him, although if it's a tea partier, I'm sure they will meet a Gingrich-like end, even as they tie up the country.

  • troglodyte on July 10, 2011 12:19 PM:

    Kudos to Rich. Good analysis. We live in interesting times. I would hate to be a major government contractor right now, though, with a payroll to meet at the end of August.

  • Josef K on July 10, 2011 12:54 PM:

    It behoves me to point out something rather unsettling: the Speaker of the House is second in the line of succession to the Presidency, directly after the Vice-President.

    President John Boehner?

    I just broke out in a cold sweat at the thought.

  • troglodyte on July 10, 2011 1:53 PM:

    Although many posters have criticized the Obama Administration for offering a deal to the Repub Congress that involved SS and Medicare "adjustments" you might want to remember the mirror situation a year ago. Faced with a high likelihood that the Dems would pass a health care bill, the Repubs still stonewalled, and therefore had no fingerprints on the final legislation. If they had bargained, then Obamacare would have been more to their liking, in a policy sense. At the time, many progressive commentators thought the Repubs made a big mistake. Fast forward to 2011. Obama's crew has already decided that stonewalling a deficit reduction package could be a losing strategy, and wants to control the final package if SS and Medicare go on the chopping block. If the Repubs had taken the package, then the cuts would have signalled to the country how much *more* hurt would follow a Repub takeover in 2012. If the Repubs were rational, I might have interpreted Boehner's walk-out as recognition of this poisoned pill. But Boehner was ready to take the big package yesterday, and today's actions are those of someone trying to preserve his job, not someone playing 11-dimensional chess.

    I wonder if the Treasury can stage the August default in such a way that Haliburton and other Pentagon contractors hurt first. If the big govt contractors are forced to take the pain, the phones in Congress will surely ring.

  • tamiasmin on July 10, 2011 2:44 PM:


    Pentagon contractors employ ordinary people, who once again will soak up most of the hurt. And their calls to Congress will not be returned.

  • Schtick on July 10, 2011 3:40 PM:

    I've never cared for Boner. He can never LOOK at anyone. If he isn't crying, he's giving them "the slant", looking at them sideways.

    crapcha....dokoro coldiri....I'm lost

  • yellowdog on July 10, 2011 4:12 PM:

    re 11:09 - Gephardt was never Speaker of the House.

  • June on July 10, 2011 4:59 PM:

    This latest news reminds me that Obama is quite the poker player. Republicans insist on playing games, so he called their bluff and upped the anty. Predictably, Boehner folded.

  • mfw13 on July 10, 2011 8:05 PM:

    What Obama needs to do is to ingnore the right-wing of the GOP and craft a package that appeals to Dems and the few remaining moderate GOPers.

    Remember, he only needs 218 votes, which means probably only 15-20 GOP votes are needed.

  • Doug on July 10, 2011 8:26 PM:

    "...today's actions are those of someone trying to preserve his job..." troglodyte @ 1:53 PM.


    "Remember, he only needs 218 votes, which means probably only 15-20 GOP votes are needed." mfw13 @ 8:05 PM.

    What Speaker Boehner needs is 50% plus one of the ENTIRE Republican caucus in order to remain Speaker; THAT'S the stumbling block.

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  • cmdicely on July 11, 2011 9:36 AM:

    I doubt Boehner discovered anything; Boehner, on the one hand, and Cantor, et al., on the other are playing bad and worse in negotiations with the White House as a political tactic to try to delay action, extract concessions, and make the issue of who has what position seem as complicated as possible to the public so as to make it easier for Republican-friendly media to muddy the water on blame if the whole thing fails and there is no deal at all.

  • Burnham on July 11, 2011 3:24 PM:

    Thank God for writer's like this one that will tell the hard hitting facts. Boehner is NO leader and we the American people are suffering. Yes, suffering both emotional and fiancial elements since Boehner lied his way into the majority of our House of Representatives. Now we have to tend with BOehner vs Cantor cat fight for power...I left an assertive message at Boehner office (202-225-6205) and told him how much of a disappointment he is. Also, that the unemployment increase is his fault and McConnell, not the president. Boehner and McConnell hate the president so bad that they both are willing to destroy our nation. Boehner has NOT created any job bills NONE and McConnell will NOT allow any job bills to pass in the Senate. Boehner's days as the speaker must be numbered. So Americans, please voice your power in your vote to rid us of as many Republicans as possible, including Republican governors.

  • CarbonDate on July 12, 2011 1:33 PM:

    People talking about a Tea Party revolt to oust Boehner as Speaker are forgetting one little thing: the Democratic caucus. A divided Republican caucus could result in the return of Speaker Pelosi.

  • Trok on July 12, 2011 5:29 PM:

    When are all the polititions going to put the American citizens first instead of playing games with the country and our government.