The Boehner Illusion

The tea party uprising that stopped a debt deal -- and John Boehner -- showed where the real power lies with Republicans


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.

Given the Republicans' path back to power, Boehner was always an unlikely leader. His weakness derives from his being a 20-year veteran of Washington who happened to be next in line for the speakership when last fall's Tea Party uprising delivered the House of Representatives to the Republicans. Boehner, the consummate insider, became speaker thanks to a bunch of militant outsiders. Power doesn't get more fragile than that.

But Boehner himself never conceded this. 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.

Nor did he stop there. He made a series of elaborate deferrals to junior Republicans who could easily have been steamrolled, and he sacrificed with apparent willingness high-profile projects that are a speaker's prerogative. Earlier this year, for example, he let freshman budget hawks kill off the multibillion-dollar alternative engine program for the F-35 jet fighter that was bringing jobs and money to his Cincinnati district. And though he must have understood how it could damage his party, he allowed his Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan, to introduce a radical agenda, including a plan to privatize Medicare, that passed the House in April.

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 that illusion was only workable so long as it wasn't put to too hard a test. In April, he narrowly skirted a government shutdown and, after extracting $40 billion in concessions from the White House, appeared to have emerged intact. But these concessions turned out to be less than advertised, which left many members of his caucus feeling betrayed - and therefore less, not more, inclined to submit on the debt ceiling.

Boehner did what he could to protect his right flank, assigning Eric Cantor, his majority leader and possible Brutus-in-waiting, to negotiate a debt increase with the White House. But Cantor quit those talks last week, which thrust Boehner into the role of lead negotiator and finally exposed his true weakness.

The strategy failed. The pity of it is that although Boehner was derided as weak for breaching the latest right-wing orthodoxy and considering revenue increases (something most Republicans understand is necessary, but few admit for reasons now obvious), his $4 trillion deal with Obama would have cut spending far more than any current alternative. It also would have reformed entitlements like Medicare and Social Security that conservatives rail against, but dare not touch for fear of a backlash. Boehner would have bought cover from the Democrats at a bargain price. What he proposed - and what his party killed - would have done more to advance conservative objectives than anything that will now be considered.

Boehner, in other words, had the judgment, but not the power, that a speaker requires. And the irony now lost amid the clamor of his failure is that it was he, and not the Tea Party, who has proved to be the true radical.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.