House Speaker John Boehner (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images) House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)
(Brendan Smialowskia/Getty Images)

There are two schools of thought about how Speaker of House John Boehner (Ohio) managed the shutdown crisis. However, the opposition within his own conference to the final and inevitable deal (87 to 144) suggests the depth of the dysfunction with which Boehner had to contend, a fact not always apparent at each juncture in the fight.

One version of events goes like this: The uprising of the 40 to 60 hard-right members of the GOP majority was brewing since the GOP took back the House in 2010. They operated under the delusion that if only they fought harder, shut down the government and rashly confronted the Senate and the White House, they could obtain results that their “timid” leaders had routinely failed to obtain. For them, the problem was not Democratic control of the White House and the Senate, but insufficient resolve among their leadership. The shutdown was, in essence, the only way to burst the bubble and to tame the conference. The GOP leadership (outside the context of the debt ceiling that would do huge damage) followed the hard-right’s lead, allowing it to force a government shutdown and reject every compromise. The members now see the results and see that the fault is not John Boehner’s. (He’s getting rave reviews from the crazies.) Boehner could therefore go to Democrats at the very end for votes on the shutdown and the debt ceiling, teach his conference a lesson and set the stage for a more workmanlike approach to governance. One senior GOP aide observed, “I think a large majority of our members regret not listening to the speaker back in August and early September.” In this version, the so-called moderate Republicans were a much smaller faction of the conference and could not on their own have constituted a majority of the GOP (or of the House).

The other take on this is that Boehner and non-radical members had more leverage than they understood. At any point, the theory goes, Boehner could have rounded up a large plurality of his caucus, gotten some Democratic support and crushed his far right, which didn’t have enough numbers or organization to oust him as speaker. This scenario posits that Boehner put the need for party control and unity ahead of the immediate damage to the country and the standing of the party, at least in the short-run. This, the argument goes, was all for naught since the far-right never learns and is never tamed. This theory, however, presumes that there were enough moderates to stand behind a compromise that could have delivered something for the right and picked off a sufficient group of Democrats for passage.

In fact, that math may have been wrong, and we’ll never really know how the alternative scenario would have worked out. Certainly, it would have been better for all concerned if the GOP crazies didn’t act crazy, but that wasn’t going to happen. (Undoubtedly, had the GOP done nothing other than point to the Obamacare catastrophe and batter red-state Democrats, they would have had a better chance to alter or delay Obamacare and to maintain the party’s standing with voters.) So Boehner, just as he said, played the hand he was dealt. The real test as to whether that was the right strategy will come in the budget talks and in the 2014 elections. If the GOP makes small but significant gains in the negotiations, keeps the House and takes the Senate, Boehner will be heralded as one of the great strategists of his day. (Even two of three would earn him kudos.) What we do know presently is that Boehner kept his word not to allow a default. In the whole sorry episode, that may have been the most important promise actually kept.