The Grand Theories of John Boehner

Elspeth Reeve
May 28, 2013
The Grand Theories of John Boehner

With the least productive Congress in history after a series of manufactured fiscal crises, an inability to stop a sequester which both Republicans and Democrats think is dumb, 37 unsuccessful votes to repeal Obamacare, a regular question for Washington is this: Is John Boehner good at his job? On Tuesday, Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen say no, not really. Boehner is leading from behind in the House, they say, refusing to engage in talks with President Obama on anything, not even the budget. "His style, in short, is not lean in," Politico says. "Or lean on. It’s lean back — and wait." This is only the latest of many Grand Theories of John Boehner that attempt to explain why he, like Obama, can't use a Jedi mind meld to make conservative Republicans do what he wants. Most theorists agree that Boehner's job is really hard. They differ on whether he makes the most of it.

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John Boehner is a wimp. It's not that Boehner is ineffective at wielding power. It's that he doesn't even like doing it. "He clearly likes power but doesn’t get the charge most others do about actually using it, VandeHei and Allen write. "He would much rather drink wine with members at night than twist their arms in the daytime. This can make him look, well, weak. Or, at best, like a bystander in the House he runs." Boehner himself gave Politico evidence for this. National Republicans think they desperately need to pass immigration reform so Latino voters will be more open to voting Republican. And Republicans now have a new tool to attack Obama with: a trio of bureaucratic scandals. But Boehner thinks this will make it harder to pass immigration reform, because Americans will be less likely to trust government to police the border. "When people see these abuses, when they see these problems, it just confirms in their mind that their skepticism is well-founded," Boehner told Politico. "So, it will make it harder."

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John Boehner is a master strategist. The New York Times' Ross Douthat advanced this theory in January. Because Republicans have a majority in the House despite being a minority party, they "have just enough real power to raise conservative expectations but not nearly enough to bend a liberal president and a Democratic Senate to their will." Boehner must "persuade his caucus that he’s maximizing Republican leverage, while simultaneously looking for ways to make small, can-kicking deals at the last possible moment," Douthat says. That all these crises have been resolved at the last minute shows Boehner is a success, not a failure. (Since then, Boehner has passed a short-term debt limit increase but been unable to stop the sequester.)

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John Boehner is a procrastinator. Boehner solves these crises at the last minute by promising the next confrontation will be more apocalyptic, New York's Jonathan Chait said in February. "He got through the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the debt ceiling by promising his members a grand, successful clash the next time." Boehner has tried to give conservatives measurable success by creating rules that he must eventually abandon, Chait says, like that bills must pass with a Republican majority (he gave up on that), or that the debt limit increase must be matched with spending cuts (he gave up on that too).

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It's fun to read these theories in light of the grand theory of John Boehner advanced by Boehner's staff right after Republicans won a majority in the House in 2010. "Boehner and his team are mindful that he will showcase a very different leadership style," Politico reported that December. "Having witnessed up close the House’s two most recent transfers of party control, he has wanted to avoid what a close aide described as the 'me, me triumphalism' of Speakers Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi." This has remained true. No triumphalism for John Bohener. Not must triumph, either.