January 2, 2013

This is pretty simple: the problem for Republicans right now isn’t John Boehner, and replacing him wouldn’t do them any good. The problem is House Republicans.

With the election for Speaker looming, there are plenty of people complaining that Boehner is a weak Speaker, unable to discipline his conference and force them to vote with him. But that’s a real misunderstanding of the role of any Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi was an excellent Speaker, but that wasn’t for the most part because she convinced her caucus to vote with her; it was because she was quite good at coordinating the Democratic agenda. In particular, Pelosi was extremely effective during the historic 111th Congress, in 2009-2010, during a period of unified government, when Democrats were pursuing legislation that had broad Democratic backing. It’s true that on the margins a Speaker may be able to bargain with reluctant Members to get their votes, but if she insists — or is forced by divided government — to bring up bills that the bulk of her caucus doesn’t want to vote for, things aren’t going to go well. 

That’s the situation Boehner finds himself in. He has a conference with dozens of Members who appear to be unwilling to agree with the president no matter what — and dozens more who are terrified of being attacked in primary elections if they develop a “RINO” reputation by voting against the extremists. That’s an impossible situation for any Speaker. Moreover, it’s one that Pelosi or any of his other predecessors really had to deal with. Remember, Pelosi didn’t seem all that effective when George W. Bush battled House Democrats on Iraq, either. 

It’s possible that a handful of dissidents will block Boehner’s election as Speaker tomorrow; it’s even possible he’ll just decide to walk away. But neither seems very likely. And I continue to believe Eric Cantor would be nuts to want the job right now. Just as was the case in summer 2011 and with the fiscal cliff deal, at the end of the day the upcoming sequester/debt limit fight is going to end with something that wins the support of both the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democrat in the White House. If Cantor has any smarts at all, he isn’t going to want to be the Speaker at that point.

Most likely, it will still be John Boehner, and when it’s all over, he’ll once again take a hit from conservatives. No matter how good a job he does for them.