Thursday, October 3, 2013

The tragedy of John Boehner

IN THE TWO days since the United States government was put into operational life support by the Tea Party ideologues of the Republican Party, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has made several appearances on Capitol Hill, going before the cameras to double down on the GOP’s position and his own refusal to bring a clean continuing resolution on the government funding bull before the House of Representatives — ending the impasse that has shuttered much of the government’s operation, furloughed more than 800,000 federal workers, and imposed immediate hardships on millions of Americans.

When he’s before the cameras, Boehner is the picture of a burly, robust defender of his party’s plans and objectives. But watching him as he moves between appearances, before he's fully composed, you see another Boehner. Someone who  moves with the deliberateness of a man going through the motions, fulfilling a role laid out for him, a reluctant actor spouting lines that are hardly his own. At times his eyes look glassy or watery, perhaps the evidence of the congressman’s affection for merlot. But it’s his overall physical countenance away from the microphones that’s revelatory: To go by news videos in the recent days, John Boehner moves about Washington with the doomed automaticity of a man approaching the gallows.

The early results are in, and they’re not good for Republicans. In a new CBS News poll, 72 percent of respondents disapprove of linking the Affordable Care Act to the government shutdown; that includes 49 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of independents. Among the survey respondents against the ACA, 59 percent oppose powering down the government to stop it. More Americans blame Republicans for the shutdown (44 percent) than blame the Democrats (35 percent).

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It’s been said more than once this week: Boehner could end this impasse with one statement. But he could also resolve a critical national issue, and put a Republican brand on that resolution. His refusal to do so is what’s quickly moving this episode of American life from farce to tragedy.

Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton’s press secretary and now a writer for Vanity Fair, was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this morning. She noted how Boehner, in Congress for 22 years, “understands that the regular incentives that shape the behavior of his caucus are all skewed all over the place.”

She was referring to Boehner’s experience as a Republican “lifer,” a man with time in the trenches of politics, someone in the arena long enough to know what’s what. It was with some dismay that Myers, recalling the Speaker’s Wednesday news conference in front of the White House, said “he almost looked like he was a hostage, saying words he had to say when he knew it was nuts.”

True enough. And that’s where leadership is supposed to kick in. Sometimes being a leader is all about telling someone to go to hell and making them take the trip there, whether they look forward to it or not. It means acting on behalf of the greater good, the wider agency, the broader constituency that has a lot to do with leaders being leaders in the first place.

In this, John Boehner has utterly, spectacularly failed.

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MUCH OF Boehner’s current behavior is pure and simple aroused by the instinct for political survival, by just about any means necessary. He dodged a bullet back in January, narrowly surviving a House voice vote on his tenure as Speaker — with some members openly expressing a preference for House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, Boehner’s bĂȘte noire.

So the Speaker’s actions since Tuesday — offering full-throated defenses of the GOP position — are the political version of fight or flight. Boehner took to the opinion pages on Wednesday, writing a boilerplate defense in an op-ed in USA Today: “As for House Republicans, we will continue our efforts to keep the government running and deal honestly with the problems we face. We hope that Senate Democrats — and President Obama — change course and start working with us on behalf of the American people.”

Such language indicates Boehner is digging in, hunkering down and engaging in the siege mentality that he and his caucus have made a default posture since before this started on Tuesday. This embattled, Fort Apache-on-the-Hill perspective has everything to do with Boehner keeping his job as Speaker, job insurance secured by doing the bidding of the Tea Party irregulars that form the most obstreperous core of his caucus.

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But tragically, in the current impasse, Boehner fails to realize that what he thinks he can hold on to — his real authority as Speaker, his leadership role in “the People’s House,” the respect of fellow Republicans — he’s already lost.

Some of Boehner’s various congressional colleagues have lately called him a “good” man or a “decent” man, generally characterizing him as a movement conservative victimized by the reliably irrational members of his own party. If that’s true, those real, deep philosophical convictions need to be in evidence now. It’s necessary for the country to see Boehner brandish those principles now, for all the right reasons, and Boehner won’t do it.

His long status as a Washington pol has aroused a deep distrust on the part of Tea Partiers, the very people whose water Boehner carries in the current debate. As a consequence of that mistrust, Boehner's reluctance to engage the yahoo winglet of his party reveals a House Speaker animated by fear of political retribution more than anything else.

Boehner could make himself a hero of pragmatism by breaking ranks with the know-nothings and know-damn-near-nothings in his party, introducing the clean CR to the full House, and accepting the thanks of a grateful nation. He doesn’t see that such a bold action would at least briefly define leadership to the American people in Republican terms, burnish his leadership in particular — and throw down a challenge to detractors in his own party.

Few things would fortify Boehner’s bona fides more. Few actions would make Cantor’s tireless angling and machinations matter less. Vote Boehner out of the Speaker’s chair after favorably galvanizing disaffected moderate Republicans, and much of the nation? The Tea Party crew wouldn’t dare (not least of all because they’ve got no one who’d stand a chance of replacing him).

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BUT BY upholding the dictates of the Tea Party obstructionists and refusing to introduce the uncluttered continuing resolution needed to end the government shutdown, Boehner reveals the nakedly elitist mindset of the party extremists holding sway over the House, and over him. He shows the House and the nation something you wouldn’t expect from a congressman of long standing: a preference for the short game over the long game, the tactic over the strategy.

And by appearing to defend the prerogative of the congressional minority to monkey-wrench the American government for its own ends — even as he denies calls for a vote to officially determine what the view of the House majority is — Boehner has subscribed to a style of governance as outrageous as it is outdated.

Students of American history recognize this. It’s a modern nullification strategy, one that, ironically enough, is already working against Boehner. Because of his reticence to lead; because of his cynical wielding of power on behalf of his Tea Party masters; because those Tea Party masters don’t trust him no matter what he does; because of his public insistence that the minority rules, despite the fact that he knows better, Boehner has ushered in his own irrelevance. He has effectively nullified himself.

Today, the Speaker of the House of Representatives isn’t just John Boehner. He shares the job with the ghost of John Calhoun.

Image credits: Boehner: AP/Evan Vucci. "House of Turds" front page: New York Daily News, Oct. 1. Boehner and gavel: C-SPAN.

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