How Boehner beat the wingnuts: Speaker squashed rebellion -- and rebels squashed themselves

Dozens of conservatives defected, but it wasn't enough to topple Boehner. Here's how he pulled it off

Published January 7, 2015 12:00PM (EST)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)

The final count was 25. That was the number of House Republicans who, for typically hazy reasons related to "protecting the Constitution from RINOs! and with a typical lack of organization, either voted against Boehner for speaker (24) or voted present (1). The Orange One will serve a third term as speaker, without having to endure the embarrassment of a gauche second ballot process.

Twenty-five votes, cast one-by-one aloud to the clerk in the traditional, glacial style, wasn't enough to deny Boehner a majority. But 25 isn't nothing, either. It's the most defections that an incumbent speaker has suffered in 92 years. Boehner was fortunate, too, that not all 434 (following Michael Grimm's resignation, inserted into the record yesterday) showed up for the first day of work; about a dozen House Democrats were at the New York funeral of former Gov. Mario Cuomo while others were either stuck in weather or simply had better things to do. Only 408 members were present. That meant Boehner could afford around 40 defections from his party instead of 28. (This was probably fine with House Democrats. Much as they enjoy tweaking Boehner -- who doesn't? -- they'd rather have a vaguely sentient human being in the chair than a fire-bellied "Constitutional Conservative" who doesn't understand what the debt ceiling is.)

Had there been a full session, though, Boehner would have only managed to win a majority by a few votes. Or at least that's the more static theory. The other is that Boehner was never really in trouble. If he could have only afforded 28 defections -- had a smaller "cushion" -- perhaps a few who ended up voting against him when 40 were allowed would have voted for him. As in, this was all theatrics, Boehner was always fine, and the most conservative members who voted against him saw room for a "free" protest vote that wouldn't affect the outcome.

Whenever the most public figures leading a "revolt" are clownheads like Reps. Louie Gohmert and Ted Yoho, some significant element of theater is at play. It's more attention for Gohmert and Yoho from Real Conservatives, it provides far-right outlets like Breitbart News a fun if fantastical angle to work with, and "conservative outside groups" (various rackets and pyramid schemes) have opportunities anew to collect funds from gullible morons.

But the idea that John Boehner never had to worry, and that the number of protest votes would fluctuate depending on the threshold needed for a majority, would probably come as a mild surprise to John Boehner. Any rumor that there were "free" protest votes out there for the conservatives' taking would not have started from him. The Speaker's election isn't a vote on, say, funding NPR, where Boehner doesn't actually care. This about preserving his power and doing so in as unified a manner as possible. He and his leadership team were making serious "business calls" to members right up until the vote to ensure that they had the numbers.

The shoring up of support goes a lot further back than that, too. As Politico the day after the election, Boehner was "moving behind the scenes to solidify support for his reelection as speaker of the House." His allies had "vowed to take this election more seriously" after Boehner suffered 12 defections in 2013 -- when the House Republican majority was much smaller, and he only barely kept his gavel on the first ballot.

Nope, Boehner took this quite seriously. And the good news for him is that the naysayers were by and large veterans of the "trouble caucus," like Reps. Steve King, Ted Yoho, Louie Gohmert, Marlin Stutzman, Tim Huelskamp, etc. -- people who've been on Boehner's shit list so long that maintaining that treasured "outsider" cred, instead of being an useful legislator, is their guiding purpose. Few freshmen joined their ranks. A number of them who'd campaigned as conservative favorites, and either suggested or outright promised on the campaign trail that they wouldn't support Boehner, ended up voting for him after all. New Reps. Glenn Grothman, Mia Love, and Jody Hice were already being trashed as RINO sellouts in certain corners of conservative Twitter only a few minutes into their first terms. One of the more amusing media spectacles during the Speaker vote was following the feed of Breitbart News reporter Matt Boyle as he suffered through a meltdown, spitting fury at the freshmen RINO traitors, summed up with this tweet:

[embedtweet id="552533392571768832"]

Ahh, more "backbone," that old chestnut. It's always either more backbone, spine, testicles, or balls that's needed, according to certain minds. That's their story looking back, and that will be their story going forward. But as usual, there's a math issue here. Even if he hadn't won on the first ballot, Boehner would still have had enough votes locked up to prevent any other candidate from winning a majority, and they would have taken the process as far as it needed to go. If you're a freshman looking at this, and you know that Boehner's going to be your Speaker in the end, why start your congressional career by spiting him? The guy controls committee assignments and floor votes and raises hundreds of millions for candidates. Sure, he's been famously -- frustratingly -- hesitant to use the disciplinary tools at his disposal on insubordinate members in the past, but he finally may have come around to the view that playtime's over.

Freshmen House Republicans had a choice going into today: marginalize yourself as a legislator from the beginning, or don't. Being a marginalized ultra-conservative legislator isn't the end of the world. Conservative media will love you, you'll be a featured speaker at conservative rallies, you'll get invites to all the kewl parties at CPAC. You won't have to worry about a primary challenge from the right.

The trade-off is that you'll be a useless joke who serves in Congress for no apparent productive reason.

Louie Gohmert is a useless joke who serves in Congress for no apparent productive reason. He's worked hard over the years to cultivate this reputation. How's that working for him? To the point where, at the start of the new Congress, before all his peers in the House, it was his turn to vote for Speaker, and he said, "Louie Gohmert." Everyone laughed at him. They laughed at him. Here he was, for all to see, offering the punchline that is his name to the joke that is himself. Perhaps Mia Love or Glenn Grothman or Jody Hice or whoever was watching this and thinking, is this the path I want to go down on the first day of my congressional career?

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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