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Post Leadership
Posted at 11:49 AM ET, 07/28/2011

John Boehner and the politics of shame


With few days left before the debt ceiling deadline, Speaker of the House John Boehner has been rallying Republicans to push his plan through Congress. (Alex Wong - GETTY IMAGES)
The story line of the moment is that it was Speaker John Boehner’s newfound tough guy image that has rallied his fractured party around him. Seemingly every news outlet has a piece about how the man better known for crying and letting his party work its will was suddenly exhorting Congress, kicking butts, twisting arms and jettisoning his laissez-faire approach. Boehner’s much-quoted “get your ass in line” comment, delivered in a closed-door session (not to mention a questionable bank heist film clip used by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy) helped to bolster the Republican House leadership’s pugnacious image.

I have no doubt Boehner’s evolving leadership style played a role in apparently rallying support around a bill that, as of this writing, is yet to be voted on. But I’d venture that something else played almost just as big a role. Shame, embarrassment and pride were likely as big a motivator to the Republican rank-and-file as any twisted arms.

The GOP has been split for some time on the debt ceiling, seemingly caught between competing factions who, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, want either a substantial deficit reduction, come hell or high water, or some level of deficit reduction, as long as it makes President Obama look bad. But the fractured nature of the party hit new heights on Tuesday when, just seven days before the debt ceiling deadline, the Congressional Budget Office scored the latest Boehner plan, embarrassing the Speaker by saying it would only cut about $850 billion of the deficit.

There was an outcry from the far right of the party, with many coming out and openly saying they would not support it. But when an aide to the Republican Study Committee sent an email to outside groups that included the names of undecided Republicans who should be urged to vote against the bill, the tides seemed to turn. Rather than splintering Boehner’s colleagues further, it seemed to bring them together. The messages left many GOP members infuriated, reportedly chanting “fire him, fire him” about the aide in a meeting.

Combined with Boehner’s strong-arm tactics, the incident seemed to sway more members to get on board. As Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) put it to NPR’s Andrea Seabrook: “You go with the president, you go with Harry Reid or you go with John Boehner. If we vote it down, then we have nothing left on our side. We would weaken ourselves as a party really, for the next year and a half." Pride—combined with self-preservation—was starting to play a role.

The embarrassment John Boehner surely felt when his first CBO numbers turned out to be lower than he’d promised likely provided an impulse for doing more and pushing hard to get members on board. The shame of someone in your party airing dirty laundry to outsiders was surely galvanizing. And the bruised egos that resulted from being part of such a fractured party were likely motivators in bringing together Boehner’s apparent new support. To be sure, pride goes before the fall, but it’s also been proven to inspire people to pull themselves up, together.

Who knows whether or not Boehner’s bill will pass Thursday afternoon as expected—and if it does, what it will mean when it reaches the Senate or, potentially, the president’s desk. But if the House does approve it, Boehner’s strong arm won’t have done it alone.

More from On Leadership:

Five Casey Stengel-isms for the debt debate

Tom Daschle | Washington's leadership failure

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By  |  11:49 AM ET, 07/28/2011

 
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