In the end, it was the coup that wasn’t.
In a supposed nail-biter of a roll call vote Thursday, John Boehner was re-elected to be Speaker of the House with 220 votes. Twelve Republicans chose to abstain, vote present, or name an alternative. The people they selected ranged from other party leaders who clearly didn’t want the job (Majority Leader Eric Cantor shook his head when he received three votes) to former representatives who couldn’t even win re-election (Florida Tea Party favorite Allen West got two votes).
As a result of the close vote, everyone is talking about what a difficult job John Boehner will have leading the 113th Congress. And there is no doubt he will: In the next two months, he must face a difficult battle on spending cuts and what is sure to be another gridlocked fight over raising the debt ceiling. The embarrassing need to pull the vote on his “Plan B” proposal shows that while House Republicans may not be willing to seriously challenge his leadership, they are not afraid to say they’ll vote against his ideas. And just two days before he was re-elected, two-thirds of House Republicans voted against the fiscal cliff deal to raise taxes that Boehner himself supported.
Still, it’s the same difficult job anyone else would have trying to lead a fractured Republican conference filled with members more interested in ideological purity than compromise or getting things done. For one, the job of Speaker of the House is a leadership role with increasingly fewer carrots and sticks. The Post’s Chris Cillizza has an excellent run-down of all the reasons the Speakership is fast becoming a power center with less and less structural influence. In an era of fewer earmarks, fewer efforts at relationship-building, and a media landscape that creates personalities outside of traditional Congressional hierarchies, Boehner—or whoever else holds the job—has little to work with to get unruly members onboard.
If you think about it, the Speakership is really unlike any other institutional leadership position we know. Corporate executives and non-profit or government agency leaders can threaten their employees with the loss of a job if they don’t fall into line. Leaders in the armed forces have the command-and-control hierarchy of the military to force its members into lockstep. And while the president may have a hard time wrangling Congress to do what he wants, a country that institutionalizes separation of powers can also hardly expect him to succeed at every turn.
The Speakership is different. Job security for the people a Speaker “leads” are dependent on their constituents, not on how well they follow their party’s leader. A speaker may be able to remove representatives from key committees, but that may not be so much of a punishment these days, either. To wit: How many people knew the name Tim Huelskamp before he lost his committee assignment, and how many know the name now?
So what’s a Speaker to do? Should he take on a more hands-on leadership style, using more strong-arm tactics than the consensus-building approach for which he’s known? Should he kowtow to the far-right members of his party who embarrassed him just days before, and who are supposedly out for revenge? Or should he track left, as his party’s presidential contenders appear to be doing, ignoring the fringe elements and trying to re-position his party toward the center?
The best answer is actually much simpler. If being Speaker is really a position of leadership, rather than a ringleader of an unruly circus, then he should base his choices on what’s best for the country. If only 12 people had the courage not to vote for him, he may have more power to do that than it seems.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.