The side of John Boehner we understand most is the one that offers a distant sense of comfort — the one who'll pander to the conservative movement during these fiscal-cliff talks but understands a compromise must come through at the end. This is the John Boehner we dub the "dealmaker," the leader who must "stand up” to the Tea Party — and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the rival who would do him in. His “dealmaker” persona stems from the assumption he isn’t a true believer or an aggressively ideological Republican, which is correct.
But it's his other side, the deeply ambitious one, that clouds our ability to predict where the fiscal saga ends. This is the Boehner who clawed his way to the House speakership for over 20 years, a position that his conference may force him out of if he "surrenders" to President Obama in private negotiations.
While we watch the battle unfold, the most important negotiations may be going on in John Boehner's own head — between the side that understands that the American government is set up to make reforms while keeping the trains running on time, and the one that wouldn't dare let any single decision topple him from his roost atop the House of Representatives. And while liberals derive a significant amount of pleasure from watching him suffer, they should keep in mind: More often than not, he resolves disputes in a way that appeases both sides of his conscience.
Boehner's a quick study: He grew up in a working-class Catholic family, put himself through college, and rose up the ranks of a plastics company that he eventually ran. He claims to have been apolitical until he was put in charge of a small business, at which point he decided he didn't like taxes and regulations and became a Republican.
There's something comforting in that biography; you understand this type. His history is a composite of textbook Republicanism over the last century. His background is in business, and so he came to like business-friendly policies. He's not confusing to liberals like so many of the current movementarians — the long-term Norquistian schemers, or the men who never outgrew their boyhood fascinations with Ayn Rand. Boehner never appears to be plotting a right-wing utopia; he simply likes to finish the day's work and go out to drink wine with lobbyists. If getting there requires giving Democrats a bit of additional revenue in budget talks, eh, fine.
His biography puts him firmly in the moderate Republican box. While the far-right edges of the Republican Party love only the battle, moderate Republicans at least understand how legislating works, and they understand that in the end they must compromise or fail. During the fight itself, feel free to spit, kick, scream — whatever — just know that in the end, on a decision like funding the government or allowing it to finance its debt, you have to give some rope. At some point during his 20-plus years in Congress, Boehner came to comprehend this very simple concept. Doing so has nearly made him a pariah in his party.
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No deal Boehner makes in the fiscal-cliff talks, though, will relieve him of his speakership. He won't let that happen because he's also a ruthlessly ambitious politician and has been his entire career.
Boehner's early tenure in the House closely resembles that of some of the 2010 freshmen class members now trying to make their own reputations. In fact Boehner, like his then-ally Newt Gingrich, was one of the earliest masters of self-promotion in a post-CSPAN, big-media world. Rather than following the old House tradition of newer members keeping quiet and letting committee chairs go about their business, Boehner railed against the chamber's corruption, notably against earmarks. In his excellent book on the 112th Congress, "Do Not Ask What Good We Do," Robert Draper offers a typical anecdote from Boehner's freshman term:
One thing differentiated him from the back room dealmakers on the Hill: he didn't like earmarks. He just thought designating taxpayer dollars for a particular congressman's local college or airport wasn't the right way to do business. … Boehner, as a freshman, took the House floor to excoriate the 1991 Highway Bill, which bore the fingerprints of eventual Transportation Committee chairman Bud Shuster: "I stand opposed to this legislation because spreading pork around to secure enough votes to pass this turkey is wrong!"
Perhaps now, as a speaker whose conference has banned earmarks and refuses to vote for any bipartisan legislation, Boehner's understanding of their usefulness has matured. In the '90s, though, the earmark issue allowed Boehner to label himself a reformer.
By 1995, he had slipped and let his friendship with lobbyists get the better of him. He was caught distributing campaign contributions from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor before a vote on a tobacco-subsidies bill, a cartoonishly corrupt move that marked the beginning of the end of his first term in the House GOP leadership.
His rapid return to power is a sign of pure luck or a perfectly executed plan from a master opportunist. He started back from the bottom, chairing the small Education Committee's Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations. Again, here's Draper, explaining Boehner's next moves:
Showing a surprisingly aggressive streak, Chairman Boehner won a few turf wars and steered important legislation through his bailiwick. He became the full committee chairman in January 2001 and immediately caught a big break when the new Republican president, George W. Bush, decided to lead off with the No Child Left Behind education initiative. Boehner's work on the bill with Bush, Senator Ted Kennedy, and California Congressman George Miller won glowing reviews.
And so Boehner's second rise into the House leadership began, culminating in his tenure as House Speaker beginning in January 2011. And he's not the type to simply give that up, with Cantor nipping at his heels, because folks in the media want him to "stand up to the Tea Party" more aggressively. When Cantor got wind of Boehner’s “Grand Bargain” with President Obama during the debt-ceiling talks, he led a conservative revolt against the proposal’s revenue increases and killed the deal. Boehner, wary of his job, let Cantor win that round — and let himself keep his job.
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The debate about whether Boehner will go down as a "strong" or "weak" speaker depends on how one defines those terms.
If we simply mean "weak" as a guy who sucks at his job and "strong" as one who deftly moves through important pieces of legislation … well, let's just say his record could use some improvement. The tedious debates of the past two years over funding the government, raising the debt ceiling, and, now, preventing the fiscal cliff from going into effect prove pretty conclusively that Boehner hasn’t learned to wield the gavel well enough to spare the nation constant embarrassment. And the humiliating collapse of Boehner’s“Plan B” last night shows that he’s still far away from earning the trust of his colleagues.
But if we're talking about how much power a speaker assumes his or her self in setting priorities and leading negotiations on major legislation, rather than keeping out of the picture and handing the reins off to his committee chairman, Boehner has already chosen the role of a "strong" speaker. He takes it upon himself to keep the GOP conference united and personally negotiate the details each time these would-be “Grand Bargain” opportunities arise, even though he’s clearly not very good at it.
For now, it appears Boehner is caught between his inclination to be flexible ideologically to move bipartisan pieces of legislation — by, say, trying to attract Democratic votes — and the risk of his conference ousting him as speaker. He has very little interest in allowing the latter.