How John Boehner couldn’t win

October 16, 2013

Conventional wisdom is set. Speaker John Boehner lost -- big time -- in the government shutdown debate. He stuck with demands from the very conservative wing 0f the GOP to defund/delay/alter President Obama's health-care law even after it became crystal clear that neither the White House nor Senate Democrats would ever approve a measure to fund the government that contained Obamacare provisions in it.  He repeatedly tried to rally his conference behind alternate plans -- including his gambit on Tuesday to pass legislation to force the Senate's hand -- and watched those efforts collapse. Amid those failures, the Republican brand slid into the gutter of American politics, reaching historic lows in a series of national polls.  The conclusion: Boehner gambled and lost. He picked a strategy and he picked wrong.


U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attends a news conference following a meeting of House Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. (European Pressphoto Agency/Michael Reynolds)

But what if Boehner didn't have any choice? What if he didn't pick the strategy but the strategy picked him? That's the argument made to us by a Republican consultant loyal to Boehner. Here's the relevant part of his e-mail:

"Had Boehner not pursued his course of action the past two weeks, the conference would have fractured and the entire leadership would have faced some sort of challenge. Even some of the more rational members of the conference needed this confrontation over the debt and Obamacare. He did what he had to do to keep his conference intact."

By that logic, Boehner had no choice. Had he gone forward with his initial plan on the shutdown -- allowing a symbolic defund Obamacare vote in the House that could have been stripped from the continuing resolution by the Senate and then sent straight to President Obama -- there would almost certainly have been a revolt in the ranks from tea party conservatives, who saw this fiscal pinch point as their last, best chance to fundamentally alter a law that they hate (and that word is not an exaggeration for their feelings about Obamacare). Such a schism would have ensured that the Republican Party -- in the House at least -- was non-functioning all the way through the 2014 midterms (and maybe longer). Boehner, his allies argue, did the only thing he could to keep the conference close to united.

Seen from that angle, it's quite clear that Boehner faced a no-win situation in the fiscal fight -- and, in truth, maybe from the start of his speakership given how he approached the job. He defined his mission as speaker as, well, speaking for the entirety of the Republican conference. That's a worthy goal but one that, given the current state of the House GOP, is entirely unattainable. Boehner's error was in realizing far too late that consensus was a pipe dream. By trying to massage the GOP conference to agreement that it simply couldn't (and maybe didn't want to) arrive at, Boehner set himself up to fail.

In retrospect, he would have been better served by saying something like this to his conference in early 2011: "Look, you aren't going to agree with me on every move I make. None of you. But, you are either with me or against me. I need to know now. If you can't deal with someone who is going to occasionally move the conference in a direction you don't agree with, you need to say so right now. We need to be a team, not a group of individuals."  He needed to force people to pick sides way back when. You are either on the team or off the team. Of course, given the makeup of the House conference, it's uniquely possible that saying something like that would have meant that Boehner would never have become Speaker in the first place.

Lose-lose. Big time.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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