Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Boehner, Ryan and the next Speaker

JOHN BOEHNER’s resignation from the Speaker’s post in the House of Representatives was a long time coming. The exploits of the beleaguered movement conservative and closet pragmatist re-elected to the post in January have been a painful thing to watch. Like a Willy Loman of the People’s House, Boehner is a man who was finally frustrated by the same politics that once animated him, at the mercy of the Tea Party mob that once, however half-heartedly, shouted his name, but who have since told him: You can go now. Your services are no longer required.

Boehner’s fate has been sealed for some time. In many ways, Boehner, now a 13-term veteran of Congress, was doomed by his own political longevity. I wrote in October 2013 that:

“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 ... 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.”

It caught up to him. On Sept. 25, when Boehner announced his intention to step down sometime this month, it was the last aria in the final act of an opera that’s been playing out for too long, the former hero of the GOP left on the stage, alone, his body invisible, only his face lit with a lonely spotlight that slowly dims — a metaphor for his three-term tenure in the leadership post of a body that had less and less use and patience for his brand of pragmatism with every passing year.

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Now, the Republicans’ long scramble for credibility before the American voting public has been complicated with a fresh search for a credible leader within the ranks of the House leadership. The early hunt for Boehner’s replacement hasn’t gone well.

Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, passed on seeking the post, nobly claiming that it was “For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face.” But Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post reported that a shadowy major GOP donor had previously confronted McCarthy via email threatening to expose an extramarital affair ... shortly before the magnanimous McCarthy walked away from a gig that might otherwise have been his for the asking.

And so the GOP in the House has been considering — some in the media have called it “begging” — Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to seek the Speaker’s position, a job Ryan has said he doesn’t want, more than once. The irony couldn’t be more obvious: The party that would pick someone to lead the nation can’t find someone to lead the party in a Republican-majority House.

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RYAN HAS good reason to dodge this leadership bullet. In his current position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, As one of Boehner’s periodic congressional tormentors not so long ago, Ryan well knows the Speaker’s post is as much hot seat as it is catbird seat, and maybe more.

More importantly, and as Ryan’s reluctance to pursue the job suggests, the job of Speaker of the House calls for bridge-building, or at the very least the optics of bridge-building. It calls for standing for more than bellicose rhetorical showdowns with the other side. It requires somebody willing to reach across the aisle for the purpose of achieving consensus in the People’s House, or working to get as close to that as possible.

And in today’s politics, that by definition means setting your personal political objectives — and those of the more reliably obstreperous members of your caucus — on the back burner. And Ryan doesn’t have a great track record of doing that.

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And oh yeah — The New York Times reported on Oct. 10 that hardline conservatives are angling to make changes — infrastructural, institutional changes — in the scope and authority of the House Speaker. To effectively turn down the Speaker’s volume.

From The Times: “The changes would include stripping the speaker of his outsize power over the Republican steering committee, which appoints the chairmen for all committees as well as for Appropriations subcommittees. The changes would also reduce the leadership’s tight control over what bills and amendments reach the House floor.

“Representative Mick Mulvaney, Republican of South Carolina, went so far Friday as to say the speaker should become a more institutional figure, with the role of party leadership and decision-making falling to the House majority leader.”

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RYAN’S PROBABLY right to push back. Who in his right mind wants to sign on for a gig that takes power and leverage away from you? “A more institutional figure”? Whatta they want, Queen Elizabeth of the House of Representatives? The Speaker as a ceremonial object, a figurehead? Please.

Anyway, given the zero-sum-game, scorched-earth style of today’s D.C. politics, Ryan couldn’t hope to reach across the aisle to get anything accomplished when there’s so much rancor and division within the ranks of his own party. The Times reported that conservatives are circulating a questionnaire for prospective candidates for Speaker to read and sign, presumably with some expression of loyalty attached or implied.

A questionnaire. Really? That relentless war for the soul, that constant litmus testing for absolute fidelity is what crippled Boehner politically. Is Ryan really ready for that? With three kids, and a wife, and a life?

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A “new face” might well mean a relative unknown in the position. Considering that, irony abounds again: the same party tasked with finding the next Speaker has a field of candidates that’s mushrooming just like its field of presidential contenders (which makes a perverse numerical sense; the Speaker is, after all, in the line of presidential succession).

The Journal lists several names of possibles, some confirmed in the hunt (Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Daniel Webster of Florida) and others are at the tire-kicking, definitely-maybe stage (Michael Conaway, Bill Flores, Pete Sessions and Michael McCaul of Texas, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, John Kline of Minnesota, Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, even, dear God, Darrell Issa of California).

Former Virginia GOP Rep. Tom Davis said looking for a newbie would be a mistake. “You need people who’ve been around a few terms and understand how the Senate works,” Mr. Davis told The Wall Street Journal. “That’s a mystery unto itself to most House members.”

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IT’S TRUE enough, there’s a direct relationship between star power and skills in navigating the nuances of the institution. The longer you’ve been around, the more likely you are to know how to stay around. By any means necessary. That has its upside ... and its downside. You can ask John Boehner about that.

But — and this is what the Republicans wrestle with, this is the identity hangup in the House — presumably the longer you’ve been there, the more you know about getting things done. Regardless of what the Tea Partiers and the hardliners want. Or not. That’s the existential issue waiting for the next Speaker of the House.

“If you do it right, I think you can write your ticket” to higher political goals, Davis said to Alan Fram of The Associated Press. “But there are no guarantees here because you can't control all the variables.” Especially when the variables are the people in your own party.

You can ask John Boehner about that too.

Image credits: Rodgers, McCarthy and Boehner: Doug Mills/The New York Times. Queen Elizabeth II: Official portrait. McCarthy: Associated Press. Ryan: Associated Press. Chaffetz: public domain. Boehner portrait: Associated Press/Evan Vucci.

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