As the dust settles on a dramatic week in Washington, there are multiple reports painting portraits of Republican leaders as sympathetic characters, overwhelmed by radicals in their midst.
House Speaker John Boehner just wanted to sneak out of the White House for a smoke.But President Barack Obama pulled him aside for a grilling. Obama wanted to know why they were in the second day of a government shutdown that the speaker had repeatedly and publicly pledged to avoid.“John, what happened?” Obama asked, according to people briefed on the Oct. 2 conversation.“I got overrun, that’s what happened,” Boehner said.
This is, to be sure, a convenient narrative that’s rooted in fact. Boehner, by all appearances, isn’t especially fond of House Republican extremism, and wanted neither a shutdown nor a debt-ceiling crisis, but got pushed around by the unhinged radicals who dominate his caucus.
Very little of what transpired, the argument goes, can be directly blamed on the Speaker, since very little of it was his idea. If we’re looking to hold people accountable, focus on the real culprits – Ted Cruz and the GOP’s Tea Party wing – not their intra-party victims.
As a factual matter, this may seem almost compelling, but there’s a flipside that’s worth considering. Boehner may have been overrun, but he allowed himself to be overrun through a combination of weakness and cowardice.
Boehner is, after all, the Speaker of the House – by definition, one of Congress’ most powerful leaders. He’s second in the presidential line of succession, for goodness sakes. His job is not to be pushed around by fringe factions or freshmen from a different chamber; his job is to guide the chamber responsibly.
This “I got overrun” is meant to be a defense, but it’s really not dong the Speaker any favors – Boehner was effectively conceding how remarkably weak he really is. He would have loved to have played a more constructive role, he’s arguing, but he’s a leader with few followers.
But wait, adherents to the conventional wisdom say, if Boehner tried to stand up to the radicals and set more sensible expectations, the Tea Partiers would have revolted and launched a coup against him. Maybe, but like Alec MacGillis, I’m skeptical: “It’s not enough just to say that Boehner would have been “weakened” by allowing House Democrats and a few dozen Republicans to pass such a package. Weakened how, with what consequence? If there would be an insurrection against him, who would lead it, and would he really have the votes? This assessment would have the added benefit of holding up to scrutiny the many non-nihilistic members of the House Republican caucus who deserve to be critiqued as much as their leader. Would they really have failed to vote for a crisis-ending package earlier in the process? Would they really not have stood up for him in the event of an insurrection in the ranks?”
The same, by the way, is true of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). It’s certainly true that McConnell did the right thing this week, reached a fair agreement with his Democratic counterpart, and helped prevent an economic catastrophe. But as Lucia Graves explained, it’s also true that the Minority Leader helped create this crisis in the first place by hiding on the sidelines for months, fearing a right-wing backlash back home, and allowing the right to run roughshod with no adult supervision.
“McConnell deserves credit for helping to broker a deal at the end, and more generally, for his political savvy,” Graves wrote. “But don’t let him rewrite the history books with how he thwarted the GOP’s big, dumb standoff idea. He didn’t come early to that party.”
I don’t imagine it’s easy being a Republican leader in a time of radicalized GOP politics. But if they don’t want to be held responsible for the antics of their followers, Boehner and McConnell are clearly in the wrong line of work.