The case for John Boehner (or why nobody believes in him but should)

January 7, 2013

At the moment, virtually no one believes in John Boehner.


It's comeback time for House Speaker John Boehner.

After all, the Speaker has endured a closer-than-expected vote to retain his job and a public rejection of his attempted gambit on the fiscal cliff that left him cut out of the financial negotiations.  Plus, he's won our "Worst Week in Washington" award twice -- here and here -- in the past month. Oh, the shame!

Of course, in politics it's often -- though not always -- the darkest just before the dawn. Political comebacks these days are all the rage -- Mark Sanford is running for Congress! -- so, why can't Boehner bounce back from the nadir of power at which he currently find himself?

The answer? He can. We explain how -- and why -- below. 

(And, yes, this column is a direct response to the challenge issued by the one and only Bill Simmons -- aka the Sports Guy -- in his Friday NFL playoffs piece.)

* The future favors him: The two-plus months since the election would have tested any Republican trying to lead his party. Not only did the GOP get beaten soundly across-the-board -- yes, even in the House they lost seats -- but the election also made clear that the long term future for the party is dire unless change is made. Add those electoral realities to the fact that Republicans found themselves backed into a strategic corner on the fiscal cliff -- they essentially were arguing to protect tax cuts for the richest among us -- and it's not hard to see why Boehner had a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad November and December.

But, the next few months feature a changed landscape.  Gone is the debate about extending the tax rates and in its place is whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. (Whether or not the debt ceiling fight should be a bargaining chip -- people like Greg Sargent insist it shouldn't -- it is, at least in the minds of Republicans.)

As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Sunday: "The tax issue is behind us. Now, the question is what are we going to do about the real problem. … Now it’s time to pivot and turn to the real issue, which is our spending addiction."

Republicans are both more in tune with the average American and more internally united on curtailing spending than they are on taxes.  That means Boehner will face less strife from within his own conference about the coming brouhaha with Obama over debt ceiling/spending issues, strengthening his hand in a way he never enjoyed on the cliff.

* Playing like there is nothing to lose: Reading body language over the last few weeks, it's clear that Boehner isn't exactly loving his job at the moment.  And, just in case you are bad at reading body language, Boehner made himself quite clear in an interview with the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore on Monday; "I need this job like I need a hole in the head," he said. 

Now, Boehner has given no clear signals about how long he intends to remain in the Speakership but, as we detailed last week, being the head of the House ain't what it used to be and the shelf life of Speakers in recent years is about four years. (Boehner is starting year three now.)

So, let's assume that Boehner has his mind made up that he will be gone -- either by choice or if Democrats win back the House in 2014. That reality could well give him the sort of freedom that few politicians enjoy -- the freedom to know that no matter what happens he is headed out for greener (financially speaking) pastures in the very near future. 

In fact, it could well put him on even ground with President Obama, whose main edge over everyone else in politics right now is that he doesn't ever have to worry about being re-elected again.

The question for Boehner is what direction he takes that freedom. Does he buck the tea party wing in his own party and cut a big deal with the President in hopes of leaving a long-term mark on Congress? Or does he go in the opposite direction, taking a hard line on the negotiations -- drawing a conservative line in the sand ("You shall not pass!") for a generation of Republicans to come?

* Tea party backlash: We've written extensively about how the tea party has shown itself to be tactically strong but strategically weak over the past election cycle. (We awarded the tea party with our "Worst Year in Washington" in 2012.)  That tendency showed itself in a major way in last week's vote for Speaker where even a modicum of organization or strategic sense might have pushed Boehner into an unprecedented second ballot. (Read Bob Costa's behind-the-scenes look at the coup that wasn't for more details.)

That lack of strategic thinking plays into Boehner's hands moving forward. Boehner, a creature of the U.S. House who fought his way back to the top of the chamber after being voted out of leadership by his colleagues in the late 1990s, knows strategy.

And, he now has a fresh example as to how the tea party-aligned House Members are hurting the broader GOP in the failure of "Plan B".  Had that bill passed, Republicans could have gone to the White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate with legislation that exempted all but those earning $1 million or more from tax increases. Instead, it was submarined in the House, ensuring that Republicans were forced to swallow a far-less-good deal ($400,000 and below exemption.)  

That was a classic cut off your nose despite your face moment  and reinforced the belief among many Republican members that the tea party doesn't understand that moral victories aren't actual victories. Boehner can use that as leverage as he moves forward, perhaps prying away some fence-sitting Republicans to get behind him as he tries to push a pro-active rather than a re-active agenda.

* Boehner's "yes" vote on the cliff: Unlike House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy -- both of whom voted "no" on the cliff compromise after the outcome was already settled -- Boehner voted in favor of the deal, joining 84 of his GOP colleagues.

That vote won Boehner real good will among those 84 who saw Boehner willing to stick his neck out on something he was asking them to stick out their necks on too. (Worth noting: Plenty of moderate to liberal members voted for the bill but so did conservatives like Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Mac Thornberry of Texas. Here's the full roll call vote.)

Boehner -- in the view of many Members -- led at a time when it was difficult to do so. That he was with them in a tough moment increases the likelihood they might stand by him going forward. (Never underestimate the power of personal relationships when it comes to Congress; it may be the single most important factor in understanding how deals do or don't get done.)

Boehner's task in trying to lead the House in unenviable -- and perhaps impossible. But there's plenty of reason to believe the worst is behind him and a renaissance of sorts is in the offing.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | January 7, 2013