Sit down for moment. I’d like to tell you a story. It’s called “Stepping on Rakes,” and it’s the story of Speaker John Boehner and a piece of legislation that he was under intense pressure to pass. A crisis was looming, and members on both sides of the aisle recognized that legislative action had to be taken. But Boehner, unwilling to cave to demands from the White House and the Senate, thought he could put pressure on the Democrats by rallying his members to pass his own conservative-friendly bill.
So he put the bill before the House GOP and began whipping up votes to back the legislation. A vote was scheduled, but conservatives in the House rebelled, arguing that his legislation didn’t go far enough to satisfy their demands. Lacking the votes, the bill was pulled and Boehner released a statement punting responsibility to the White House.
Yes, of course I’m talking about Boehner’s embarrassing and incompetent handling of the border crisis legislation yesterday. But I’m also talking about Boehner’s embarrassing and incompetent handling of the fiscal cliff negotiations back in December 2012.
If you’ll recall, the country was facing a double-whammy of tax increases and spending cuts set to go into effect on New Year’s Day. Negotiations between the White House and Congress on the details of the tax package were proceeding apace until Boehner blew the whole thing up by introducing “Plan B” – a bill that would lock in the Bush tax cuts for everyone making less than $1 million annually. Boehner put it before his caucus, and the conservatives rejected it because they wouldn’t accept any tax hikes, even just for millionaires. He yanked the bill and said, “Now it is up to the president to work with Senator Reid on legislation to avert the fiscal cliff.”
Much the same thing happened yesterday. Boehner, faced with the impending August recess (not quite as daunting a deadline as the fiscal cliff, but still), was under intense pressure to get something done on the border crisis. To entice the Tea Partyers into his camp, he pared the legislation down until it was basically a bill to mobilize the National Guard while sparing some pocket change to care for the migrant kids at the border until they could be expeditiously deported. But it still wasn’t enough; conservatives also wanted to cut funding for Obama’s Dream Act-lite program and wouldn’t go along with the speaker. Boehner yanked the bill and said, “There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for congressional action” to address the crisis. Of course, after he released this statement the House GOP said they’d meet this morning for one last Hail Mary shot at passing the bill, so who knows what the hell is going on.
This is the story of John Boehner’s speakership: He does nothing until circumstances force his hand; he waits until the last minute to act, trusting that the ticking clock and partisan loyalty will be enough to get him over the finish line; and then he faces the inevitable, predictable embarrassment that comes from relying on a bunch of anti-government zealots who hate the Republican establishment almost as much as they hate Barack Obama. It happens over and over, again and again.
It’s hard to think of someone else vested with so much power and crippled by an almost pathological inability to wield it effectively. Boehner and the leadership went into this week hoping that the passage of a border bill would allow Republicans to head back to their districts and say, “Hey, look! We can be competent at the most basic level when we put our minds to it. Vote Republican this November!” But even that pedestrian hope was dashed, as it relied on the speaker retaining some measure of control over his caucus.
And you know what the sad moral of this story is? It’s a good bet that come November, Boehner and his leadership team will very likely be rewarded for their shambolic efforts with a slightly larger majority in the House.
The border crisis has always been politically tricky for the White House, partly because the administration has more to lose (the Republican’s reputation on immigration matters can’t get much worse and they don’t show any sign of caring one way or the other) but also because people tend to like blaming the president for stuff. “Republicans can basically do anything they want and never get blamed for it,” Kevin Drum writes at Mother Jones. “Most voters don't even know who's in control of Congress anyway. When something goes wrong, all they know is (a) something went wrong, and (b) Barack Obama is the president and he should have done something about it.”
I suppose it’s possible that Boehner’s latest very public face plant could translate into a wave of public disgust at congressional Republicans. But, again, Boehner doesn’t really do anything but embarrass himself, and the GOP’s 2014 outlook hasn’t really suffered too much to date.
And so, come November, it’s likely that we’ll all bear witness to the obscene spectacle of John Boehner claiming a “mandate” from the voters to continue doing what he’s doing and keep stepping on those rakes.