The humiliation of John Boehner

He's powerless, and his own party continues to make him look like a fool. Maybe he'll just walk away

Published December 21, 2012 2:59PM (EST)

Last night was hardly the first public humiliation that John Boehner has suffered at the hands of his fellow Republicans, but it’s probably the most stark. And it raises some very basic questions about the House speaker’s political future – like whether he even has one.

That Boehner had devised and pursued Plan B in the first place seemed to speak to his weak grip on the GOP conference. Boehner and President Obama had negotiated their way to within spitting distance of each other, with the president giving significant ground on his revenue demands, agreeing to a reduction in Social Security benefits, and giving up on a payroll tax holiday extension. But when word of the looming deal leaked, House Republicans let their displeasure be known, and the speaker announced that he’d instead hold a vote on a bill to extend the Bush tax rates for all income under $1 million. That was Plan B.

Exactly where Plan B fit into Boehner’s overall strategy was a matter of some debate, but he pressed hard for it and confidently predicted he had the 218 votes needed to pass it. So now we know that not only does Boehner not have sufficient support among Republicans to pass a potential compromise with Obama, he also doesn’t have the support to pass his own plan.

It’s still possible some kind of fiscal cliff deal will be completed before Jan. 1, but it’s hard to see how. Last night’s developments are a clear sign that a significant chunk of Republicans are simply committed to never voting for any kind of tax hike – even one on a tiny chunk of super-wealthy people, even when it comes with some serious concessions from the other party, and even when failing to act means that taxes will go up for everyone.

The most likely scenario now is that Jan. 1 will come and go, the Bush tax cuts will expire for all Americans, and President Obama and Democrats will then introduce a bill to restore the Bush rates for most people – maybe using the $250,000 income threshold that Obama stuck with until this week. Maybe then, when the vote really would be for a tax cut, Republicans will sign off on it. But for now, that’s not where they are.

The demise of Plan B also calls Boehner’s job security into question. The Obama-era conservative base has never trusted him; he’s been in Washington too long, he cut too many pre-2008 deals with Democrats, and he voted for too much spending. Since he claimed the speaker’s gavel, they’ve been watching him like a hawk for any sign he’s about to sell them out, virtually eliminating his ability to cut deals on their behalf. What happened last night indicates that this dynamic hasn’t changed since the election, and with the Jan. 3 vote for speaker coming up, there is some chatter now that House conservatives might attempt to dethrone Boehner.

The logical candidate to replace him would be Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who certainly has the ambition to be speaker. He also has little personal regard for or loyalty to Boehner, so that wouldn’t hold him back either. But, as Jonathan Bernstein wrote this week, it makes no sense for Cantor to move until and unless some kind of long-term fiscal deal is enacted, one that addresses both taxes and the debt ceiling. Otherwise, Cantor would face the same grim reality as speaker that Boehner has: He’d have to make a deal with Obama on those issues at some point, but he wouldn’t be able to do so without violating (Obama-era) conservative principles – and facing the threat of a revolt. The same goes for just about any other would-be speaker. Boehner may be poorly suited to this moment, but the job wouldn’t be much easier for anyone else – even someone now in good standing with the right.

The better question is whether this might be a moment of personal reckoning for Boehner. Being speaker has given him a nice title, lots of visibility, some stature and prestige, and a place in history. But he’s been a SINO – speaker-in-name-only. He can’t cut big deals with Obama, can’t cajole and threaten his members into line, and can’t even pass his own stick-it-to-Obama tax plan. This has been the story of his two-year run as speaker, and after last night there’s no reason to think the next two years will be any different. It’s not impossible to imagine Boehner in the next two weeks deciding he’s had enough and just walking away, leaving the gavel for some other unfortunate soul. (A potential variation of this idea: Boehner cuts a deal with Obama, faces down the wrath of the right, musters just enough GOP votes to pass it with Democratic help, then steps down as speaker, knowing he’ll be deposed on Jan. 3.)

Basically, Boehner is probably safe as speaker if he wants to be. But more than ever, it hard to see why he wants to keep putting himself through this.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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