Boehner's "knucklehead" problem: Why he's handing Democrats a big gift

John Boehner is insulting his House colleagues yet again for their insolence. But here's the real problem he faces

Published September 17, 2014 7:32PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

A specialized sort of barometric collapse hit Washington, D.C., last night: a sudden knowledge that the capital's stocks of Merlot and unfiltered cigarettes had been depleted, and Speaker John Boehner was turning surly. And the target of his abuse, yet again, were the very specimens over whom he attempts to leverage power: the House Republicans conference.

Boehner, speaking to the International Franchise Association (read: people who don't want to pay their fast-food workers more), described the House majority over which he lords as a "paper majority," and then went on to label a dissident faction within his conference as "knuckleheads."

“On any given day, 16 of my members decide they’re going to go this way, and all the sudden I have nothing,” he said. “You might notice I have a few knuckleheads in my conference.” [...]

Boehner added in his comments on Tuesday that "dealing with Democrats is one thing, dealing with the knuckleheads is another."

The last time Boehner just straight-up mocked his subjects in public like this -- at least the last time it was caught on camera -- was in April, when he performed a comical impression of House Republicans who didn't want to act on immigration reform.

“Here’s the attitude,” Boehner said in reference to those who want to stay away from the immigration issue. “‘Ohhhh. Don’t make me do this! Ohhhh! This is too hard!” Boehner scrunched up his face and raised his voice while pretending to be his colleagues and drew some laughs from the audience.

“We get elected to make choices,” Boehner continued, this time not in character. “We get elected to solve problems and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to.”

And in 2012, Boehner flattered his rank-and-file thusly: "We got some of the smartest people in the country who serve here, and some of the dumbest. We got some of the best people you'd ever meet, and some of the raunchiest. We've got 'em all."

So here we have a Republican speaker of the House who's gone on the record to proclaim that his conference includes knuckleheads, crybaby cowards and some of the dumbest people in the United States. Here's an idea for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: stop sending weird emails to everyone 750 times a day and consider making some ads compiling these comments from Boehner.

Why was Boehner insulting members of the House GOP less than two months ahead of an election? Because he's a strange dude, for starters. Gets his Irish up sometimes, as Paul Ryan would say. But Boehner's comments were also part of an elaborate pitch to the assembled franchisees to elect more House Republicans this November. He has a "paper majority" in which a few wiseacres can separate themselves from the herd and force the House leadership to pull legislation from the floor. Pity the speaker.

It's a midterm election cycle in the sixth year of the Obama administration, so the odds are that any new members added to the speaker's Republican roster this November will be natural fits for the Knucklehead Caucus. The problems Boehner has had (not) moving pieces of legislation these past four years won't go away, because they're problems with Boehner's leadership style. He's too tentative to threaten the knuckleheads' committee assignments and access to party campaign cash. He's abandoned earmarks. And his members know that, except in a handful of cases, his threats to pass legislation with Democratic votes are bluffs. The new knuckleheads will find him just as easy to roll as the previous ones have.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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