Why Boehner doesn’t just ditch the hard right

October 1, 2013

Robert Costa is the National Review's Washington editor and one of the best-sourced reporters among House Republicans. Like many others, I've relied on his reporting in recent days about how House Republicans are strategizing around the government shutdown. But it left me with some questions, particularly around Speaker John Boehner's strategy. We spoke by phone this afternoon, and a lightly edited transcript follows.

John Boehner is just trying to survive. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
John Boehner is just trying to survive. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Ezra Klein: Walk me through the math of the House GOP a bit. Most people seem to think Boehner has around 100 members who largely back him and don't want a shutdown, and it’s a much smaller group, a few dozen or so, who want to take this to the brink. So why doesn’t Boehner, after trying to do it the conservative’s way as he has been in recent weeks, just say, we're voting on a clean CR now, as that’s what the majority of the House Republican majority wants?

Robert Costa: Ever since Plan B failed on the fiscal cliff in January and you saw Boehner in near tears in front of his conference, he’s been crippled. He’s been facing the consequences of that throughout the year. Everything from [the Violence Against Women Act] to the farm bill to the shutdown. The Boehner coup was unsuccessful but there were two dozen members talking about getting rid of him. That’s enough to cause problems. Boehner’s got the veterans and the committee chairs behind him, but the class of 2010 and 2012 doesn’t have much allegiance to him.

The thing that makes Boehner interesting is he’s very aware of his limited hand. Boehner doesn’t live in an imaginary world where he thinks he’s Tip O’Neill and he can bring people into his office and corral them into a certain vote. So he treads carefully, maybe too carefully. But he knows a clean CR has never been an option for him.

EK: But why isn’t it an option? A few dozen unhappy members is an annoyance, but how is it a threat? Wouldn't Boehner be better off just facing them down and then moving on with his speakership?

RC: So there are 30 to 40 true hardliners. But there’s another group of maybe 50 to 60 members who are very much pressured by the hardliners. So he may have the votes on paper. But he'd create chaos. It'd be like fiscal cliff level chaos. You could make the argument that if he brought a clean CR to the floor he might have 100-plus with him on the idea. But could they stand firm when pressured by the 30 or 40 hardliners and the outside groups?

EK: How much of this is a Boehner problem and how much of this is a House Republicans problem? Which is to say, if Boehner decided to retire tomorrow, is there another House Republican who has enough trust and allegiance in the conference that he or she could manage the institution more effectively? 

RC: What we're seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power. It’s not so much about Boehner. It’s things like the end of earmarks. They move away from Tom DeLay and they think they're improving the House, but now they have nothing to offer their members. The outside groups don't always move votes directly but they create an atmosphere of fear among the members. And so many of these members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire. The members begin to believe they can achieve things in divided government that most objective observers would believe is impossible. Leaders are dealing with these expectations that wouldn't exist in a normal environment.

EK: Why does that happen, though? It would absolutely be possible for liberal members to cocoon themselves in a network of liberal Web sites and liberal cable news shows and liberals activists. But in the end, liberal members of Congress end up agreeing to broadly conventional definitions of what is and isn’t politically realistic. So how do House Republicans end up convincing themselves of unrealistic plans, particularly when they’ve seen them fail before, and when respected voices in the Republican and even conservative establishment are warning against them?

RC: When you get the members off the talking points you come to a simple conclusion: They don't face consequences for taking these hardline positions. When you hear members talk candidly about their biggest victory, it wasn’t winning the House in 2010. It was winning the state legislatures in 2010 because they were able to redraw their districts so they had many more conservative voters. The members get heat from the press but they don't get heat from back home.

EK: Is there a plausible replacement candidate for Boehner who could actually threaten his speakership in the near term? You used to hear a lot about Cantor, for instance, but he seems a little more closely allied with Boehner these days, and perhaps even a bit tainted in conservative circles because of it.

RC: Some of Cantor’s allies in the House actually worry he’s becoming too tied to Boehner. He used to almost cast himself as the conservative alternative. But I don't think Boehner is seriously threatened. He won't be threatened so long as he goes along with conservatives in the House. He listens to them. He follows their advice. He’s often led by them. And as long as that’s true, how will there ever be a coup attempt? Boehner got so burned by the fiscal cliff that he’s been defanged. There’s no talk now about mounting a coup against him because he never goes against the right. The other candidates you hear about, like Tom Cole or Paul Ryan or Eric Cantor or Kevin McCarthy, you don't hear them clamoring for the job, because they'd have to handle the same situation.

EK: This may be a bit of an odd question, but why does Boehner want to do his job like this under these circumstances? From the outside, it seems like a miserable existence. 

RC: I think John Boehner is frustrated by leading the Republicans in the House but I think he very much loves being speaker. To understand him you have to understand that. He gets to the Capitol early. He relishes the job and the position but he doesn’t relish being at odds so often with his members. He loves being a major American political figure, but he’s not a Newt Gingrich-like figure trying to lead the party in a certain direction. He’s just trying to survive and enjoy it while it lasts.

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