I find it relatively easy to feel sorry for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). He’s weak and inept, but most of the ridiculous things that happen among House Republicans aren’t by Boehner’s design. The Speaker didn’t want the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis; he didn’t want to hold several dozen votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act; and he didn’t want the government shutdown he forced last night. They’re all the result of a radicalized caucus he doesn’t control, want, or influence.
But Jonathan Cohn makes the case that what Boehner needs isn’t pity; it’s blame.
He’s in a difficult position, for sure, but it’s partly one of his own making. Sometimes leadership means telling followers what they can and can’t do. In this case, that should have meant telling Tea Party Republicans they can’t get rid of Obamacare, because it became law, was upheld by the Supreme Court, and validated by a presidential election. Boehner tried to say something along those lines after the election, but conservatives howled and – as usual – he backed down, promising the right they’d get their chance. Now they expect it to happen.
It won’t. And at some point Boehner needs to say so. It will mean taking political risks, but that’s what leaders do.
As he’s proven, leading isn’t Boehner’s principal goal. The Speaker wants to hang on to his power, his nice office, and his lovely gavel, and if that means going out of his way to placate extremists so they don’t get mad at him, so be it.
That might be pathetic, but it’s also the foundation of his job security.
Indeed, in the larger context, it seems the political mainstream is still coming to terms with a dynamic for which there is no modern precedent: a Speaker of the House with no power, no backbone, no accomplishments, and no prospects for success. Boehner isn’t just failing in basic tasks, he’s failing as Speaker at a historic level.
Boehner, who has yet to pass a major bill that became law, now has a government shutdown and at least one brutal debt-ceiling crisis on his record of “accomplishments.” He introduces proposals to his caucus, which his own followers routinely reject. He talks about policy disputes, which he struggles to understand. He sets goals, which his allies derail. The Speaker asks to be judged by how many laws he repeals, apparently unaware that he’s failed spectacularly in this area, too.
His 33-month tenure, in other words, has become a cover-your-eyes debacle. Ezra recently put it this way: “Under the leadership of Speaker John Boehner, the 113th Congress – and the House of Representatives in particular – is a complete and total train wreck…. And he is, ultimately, the guy in charge of the worst-performing part of one of the worst-performing Congresses in history.”
This, by the way, was published two weeks before the Republicans’ government shutdown.
However easy it is to feel sorry for Boehner, he’s a grown man with considerable power. It’s not too late for the Speaker of the House to realize he’s the Speaker of the House. It’s within Boehner’s power to re-open the government, reach a budget deal, pass immigration reform, and begin to rehabilitate his woeful reputation.
If he chooses not to, and the Speaker continues to wallow in failure, history will not be kind.