The Washington Post

John Boehner, after ‘Plan B’

House Speaker John Boehner speaks during a news conference on Dec. 20. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The spectacular blow-up Thursday night of John Boehner’s “Plan B” has many in Washington questioning the Speaker’s leadership. After he cancelled a vote on his fiscal cliff proposal, known as Plan B, because he failed to garner the votes, will he be able to hang onto his job? If he can’t deliver House Republicans on this vote, how can he on one that will likely include broader tax increases? How will he survive the humiliation of this defeat?

But the real question about Boehner’s leadership shouldn’t be why Boehner couldn’t corral his followers. These are people who appear bent on refusing any efforts to engage in even the most basic elements of negotiation. To me, the real question about Boehner’s leadership is why he decided to wage a distracting, short-term battle when the president already seemed poised to win the long-term war.

Newt Gingrich, of all people, may have summed it up best in an interview on National Public Radio, in which he spoke of Jack Lew — Obama’s chief of staff, his potential pick for Treasury secretary, and the man who was the chief negotiator for the president during the debt ceiling debate in 2011. “The way they wrote the cliff a year and a half ago was strategically a victory for Obama, and that’s just a fact,” former House Speaker Gingrich said. “They wrote it in a way that he ends up having all the advantages in the fight right now.” He went on to say that “on their side, they have somebody who’s playing chess, and on our side we’re wavering between tic-tac-toe and checkers.”

Why, when a deal seemed close just days ago and news leaks about the negotiations already showed that tax hikes would be part of it, did Boehner choose to roll out the “Plan B” distraction? My guess is that it’s because he needed a short-term win to prove he still held some cards. In a last-ditch effort to demonstrate he had some leverage in the fight, he actually made a “stunning miscalculation” that should give the president and the Democratic-controlled Senate an even bigger advantage, writes the Post’s Right Turn blogger Jennifer Rubin. “The president…can now rightly claim that House Republicans would rather raise everyone’s taxes than raise them on millionaires.”

Yes, leadership is about getting people to fall in line and persuading your followers to get on board. But it’s also about thinking strategically about long-term outcomes and getting ahead of your opponents’ next move. Boehner’s leadership may be in question after being humiliated by the lack of votes on his last-minute bill. But his inability to make the kind of long-term maneuvers over the past two years that would put his party in a position to win should be raising just as many questions, too. 

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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