The Nature of John Boehner's Problem

So last night, John Boehner suffered a particularly humiliating defeat. Attempting to pass "Plan B," a fiscal plan that would go nowhere in the Senate, and even if it did it would get vetoed by the President, Boehner was hoping that if nothing else he'd be able to say in the face of rising criticism, "We passed a plan!" But he couldn't accomplish even that; realizing that he couldn't muster the votes within his caucus for Plan B, he cancelled the vote. Boehner is the weakest Speaker in memory. I picture Nancy Pelosi, who can corral more votes before her morning coffee than Boehner can in a week of begging, smiling a wicked little smile at her opposite number's bumbling failure.

So just why is it that Boehner finds even a symbolic vote like this one so impossible to win? I don't think it's that he's ineffectual, and a more skilled dealmaker would be able to accomplish more. The problem is in his troops. Ed Kilgore offers his explanation:

This raises a question that has been at the back of my mind for awhile now: just why is Boehner just a weak Speaker? To think of him and Sam Rayburn holding the same post is jarring. We are in a new era of very partisan and ideologically homogeneous parties, but that didn’t stop Nancy Pelosi from being an extraordinarily effective leader just in a purely mechanical sense. Whatever else you think about her, she clearly knows how to get bills through her caucus. Dennis Hastert was weaker, but he and Tom Delay didn’t faceplant like this all the time.

My gut instinct is that it’s the obvious answer: Republican extremism. If keeping taxes low on millionaires takes a backseat to every other political calculation to such an extent that the caucus won't even give their ostensible leader a meaningless fig leaf with no chance of becoming law, then a Speaker will be powerless. There's also the grand vizier problem—Eric Cantor is famously just waiting for the chance to knife Boehner and claim the Speakership for himself.

Ideological extremism is a multi-layered thing. It's substantive, in the content of the policy views these Members hold. It also has to do with their personal political calculations—most of them come from safe Republican districts, where the only threat they'll ever get is a primary challenge from the right, so they don't need to worry that there will be a consequence for recalcitrance. But it's more than just extremism; I think it also has to do with the particular kind of politician who now dominates the House Republican caucus.

The Republicans who got elected in the last two cycles—and there are more than enough of them to scuttle anything Boehner wants to pass—don't have particularly long views, and they don't care much about legislating. They came to Washington to say "No!" to things. They aren't sophisticated about policy, and they didn't spend years working their way up by navigating tricky political situations in state houses. They're bomb throwers, and they got elected by being the most angrily conservative person in whatever district they were running in. The idea of making the best of a bad situation, or voting yes on one bill you don't like as part of a strategy to set the stage to win a partial victory on another bill you won't like, makes no sense to them. They don't particularly care about the usual carrots that party leaders can dangle before junior members, like plum committee assignments or future opportunities for home-district pork. They don't really care whether John Boehner keeps his job. They see themselves as lone wolves, fighting for a cause whose eventual victory won't come through the boring work of legislation, but through being strong and resolute, and fighting government and Democrats at every step. This obviously doesn't apply to all of the House GOP caucus, or maybe even most. But there are enough of them to whom the description applies, enough to make Boehner's life miserable.

So it isn't enough to say they're ideological extremists. You can be highly ideological but still have a strategic sense and a desire to take incremental steps toward your ultimate goals. Ted Kennedy was extremely liberal, but he shepherded more legislation through the Senate than nearly anyone in American history, and most of those laws involved compromises. That's because he saw legislating as the way to accomplish his ideological goals. Today's House Republicans don't. If Boehner comes to them and says, "Here's the best three-part strategy to minimize the damage from the situation we're in," they just don't want to hear it. I'll repeat a question I asked in yesterday's "Ringside Seat" (sign up for our newsletters, by the way!): If you were John Boehner, would you even want this job anymore?

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