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December 20, 2012 11:30 AM Planbee

By Jonathan Bernstein

Obviously, I’m assuming that after Speaker Boehner introduced Plan B to the GOP conference yesterday, the Republican Members of the House have been spending the day running around covering up for Matthew so he doesn’t get fired. Right?

(Yes, I know, no one knows or cares. Sorry; I’m going to treat it as if it’s a well-recognized classic that’s part of our assumed common culture, so that I can make references to it without explanation.)

Hmmm…where was I….oh, yeah, Boehner and Planbee. Does she (she being Andrea Planbee — didn’t you click on the link and re?-watch the entire four-episode sequence before continuing?) have the power to unseat Dave Boehner, and put her best friend Eric Cantor into the Speaker’s chair?

Well, no, not really. John Boehner has one major safety net which should keep him safe as Speaker for a while: Eric Cantor shouldn’t want the job, just yet. The situation is basically the same as the one in Summer 2011. Sooner or later, there’s an excellent chance that the Republican Speaker — whoever it is — is going to have to sign on to something. At the very least, the Republican Speaker will eventually have to support an increase in the debt limit or a mechanism for avoiding it, but before that the odds are good that the Republican Speaker will wind up supporting something to modify the sequester and to keep tax rates at their present levels for some, but not all, filers.

That is, something will eventually pass on those topics that can be signed into law, and the only way it will pass is if both the Republican Speaker and the President of the United States agree to it.

And so it’s very much not in Eric Cantor’s interest to be Speaker when it happens. Or, to put it another way: if it’s a deal that the rank-and-file Members of the conference support, then Boehner is safe. But if it’s a deal that they don’t support, and in fact if any deal at all will cause a large chunk of the conference to blame the Speaker for selling out, then Cantor would very much like John Boehner to be the Speaker who does it.

Now, I have no idea what Cantor really wants at all. But if he simply wants to be Speaker and doesn’t care about substance at all (again, not saying that’s true, just thinking about incentives) then what he should really want is a long-term deal that removes the debt limit entirely for good, and that then barely passes the House. That should leave Boehner reasonably unpopular, but would also make the Speaker’s chair far more attractive going forward, since it would reduce the opportunities for any further brinkmanship for at least some time, and therefore turn the job into a much easier one.

The general point: it’s a mistake to think of John Boehner as a moderate and Eric Cantor as a hard-line conservative. The main thing going on is that a large part of the Republican conference is either crazy or catering to the crazies, while whoever is Speaker actually has to strike deals sometimes.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.