Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH, answers questions from reporters during his weekly briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Dec. 5, 2013.
Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

The travails of a struggling Speaker

When it comes to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), there are basically three schools of thought. The first is that he’s a terrible failure who’s been unable to lead, govern, or complete basic tasks. The second is that he’s a terrible failure, but it’s not really his fault because the radicalization of GOP politics has made it impossible for anyone to be an effective Speaker.
And the third is that Boehner is actually decent at his job – thanks to the Ohio congressman, Republicans have generally fallen short of doing real, lasting harm to the country. Were it not for Boehner’s steady hand, the scale of GOP-imposed catastrophes would have been far worse.
This third argument has always struck me as the least persuasive, in part because Boehner wasn’t able to prevent a government shutdown and a damaging debt-ceiling crisis, and in part because we should set the bar higher for success. Praising this Speaker for preventing fiascos is like giving folks the Parents of the Year award because their kids have not yet burned down the house.
And that leaves us with the other two options: (1) he’s failed and it’s mostly his fault, or (2) he’s failed and it’s mostly his members’ fault.
That’s admittedly a tougher call, though there are a couple of ongoing controversies that shed some light on the subject. Consider, for example, the fact that Boehner’s threat to shut down the Department of Homeland Security is moving forward, while at the same time, Boehner’s partnership with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an international debacle.
Paul Waldman’s take on this yesterday rings true:
[O]n the whole, Boehner is managing to combine legislative incompetence with PR incompetence. He’s already sure to be known as one of the weakest speakers in American history, for at least some reasons that are out of his control. But he might also be known as one of the least effective.
That’s not a good combination.
Boehner is burdened by a DHS failure of his own making: he took Homeland Security hostage, knowing in advance that he’d never receive a ransom. It left him with the prospect of actually shutting down much of the agency out of partisan spite, which would be awful as a matter of politics and policy, or meekly giving in and looking pathetic, unable to dodge a punch Republicans threw at themselves.
There’s also the real possibility of Boehner and his conference shutting down much of the agency out of partisan spite and then meekly giving in and looking pathetic.
I realize that the Speaker may feel like he didn’t have much of a choice – House Republicans are dominated by right-wing members who don’t think ahead – but part of Boehner’s job is navigating unfriendly waters. A Speaker has to know when there’s trouble ahead and carefully guide his party away from it – and in this case, literally everyone saw the problem coming, and Boehner managed to aim directly for it anyway.
As for his invitation to a foreign leader to come to Congress to undermine American foreign policy, there’s no evidence Boehner was pressured into this. In other words, this is probably one of those fiascos the Speaker came up with all on his own, reinforcing the impression that some of Boehner’s problems are of his own making.
Making matters just a little worse, I can’t recall ever hearing Boehner accept any responsibility for any of his obvious failures. He’s great at pointing fingers, but the Ohio Republican never seems able to step up, vow to do better, and say that the buck stops with him.
It’s practically a case study in how not to be Speaker of the House.