Posted by: Joshua Green on December 19, 2011
The big news over the weekend, besides the death of the “Dear Leader,” was the unexpected revolt by House Speaker John Boehner over the bipartisan extension of the payroll tax cut that the Senate passed overwhelmingly last week. Unexpected because Boehner had not signaled any displeasure over the deal, and in fact seemed so sure to support it that the Senate left town, thinking its work was finished. But on “Meet the Press” yesterday, he declared otherwise.
What happened? Evidently, the House GOP caucus revolted, thus adding another example to what I termed, in a column last summer, the “Boehner Illusion” — the illusion being that Boehner is leading his caucus, rather than serving as a marionette that carries out its wishes. The original tell came in July, when Tea Party conservatives scuttled the $4 trillion “grand bargain” that Boehner was negotiating with the White House to cut the deficit:
When important politicians find themselves in a vulnerable position, they often respond by pretending that what appears to be weakness is, in fact, part of some sophisticated strategy that is underappreciated and actually quite brilliant. House Speaker John Boehner was able to keep up this ruse for the first six months of his speakership. But on Saturday, everything abruptly fell apart when his own party turned on him and aborted the historic $4 trillion deficit-reduction deal he was negotiating with President Obama.
Boehner, being a consummate insider, was always an unlikely figure to lead the energized, Tea Party Republicans that swept into power last year. But he could hardly admit this, and so pretended that it was all part of the plan:
Instead, he laid out an elaborate theory of governance whereby he would end the recent House tradition of iron-fisted rule, employed by both Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert (really Majority Leader Tom DeLay), and delegate power from the speaker’s office to the committees, freshly stocked with new ideologues. He presented this as the act of a true conservative instinctively inclined toward decentralizing power, and a sign of his allegiance to the cause. But all this was simply an attempt to put a noble polish on an act of appeasement necessary to maintain his precarious perch.
And all this was in the service of his larger strategy, which went like this: by deferring to Tea Party freshmen and other hardcore conservatives on countless issues of process and policy, he would gradually win their trust so that when he truly needed them to do difficult things like raise the debt ceiling, he would have their support. A cover story in National Journal last month perfectly captured this vision: “A Different Kind of Speaker: How John Boehner is giving up power to gain power.”
But Boehner obviously didn’t gain a whole lot beside the title of Speaker. That much was obvious in July. And it’s obvious once more now that his caucus has again rebelled on the payroll tax-cut extension and embarrassed him.
(Photographer: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)