GOP's real Boehner problem: DHS humiliation reveals Speaker's true problem

Bringing "real conservatives" into the leadership isn't the magic answer for GOP. It needs a smarter one

Published March 2, 2015 7:09PM (EST)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Last Friday night the Republican Congress treated America to the dumpster fire set inevitably into motion the first instant that GOP leaders took seriously suggestions for a funding showdown over President Obama's immigration executive actions. The very moment that John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and their leadership teams decided to acknowledge this same old, consistently failed legislative tactic, they surrendered their agency and committed their party to Friday's mess, and whatever messes are to follow this week and beyond.

It did not take a seer to know that the debate over funding the Department of Homeland Security would play out like so: The House would pass a hard-right appropriations bill with riders overturning two of the president's signature programs, it would go nowhere in the Senate, McConnell would eventually cut his losses, and the House leadership would be jammed into an impossible corner of its own making.

There's plenty of shit for everyone's shoes here. How do you like your new no. 3 leadership position in the House, Rep. Steve Scalise? All the fun you could've imagined and more? Scalise's election as majority whip last summer was marketed as a means of giving Real Conservatives a "seat at the table," of establishing a far-right beachhead within the leadership. Now Scalise is just another RINO sellout failure, humbled, muttering about disagreements over tactics.

It was a particularly embarrassing defeat for Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who won a leadership position last year in part because of the expectation that he could bring the House's most conservative members behind Boehner on key votes such as this one.

On "Fox News Sunday," Scalise faced pointed questions from host Chris Wallace about his failure to deliver the votes of "Freedom Caucus" Republicans to Boehner.

"You are the tea party favorite, if you will, who joined the leadership with the assurance that you were going to be able to bring more conservative members to back the leadership. You're also, as the House whip, the person who's supposed to count the votes," Wallace said. "You were defeated, and defeated basically by your own caucus — 52 Republicans. What happened?"

Scalise, who spoke Sunday morning before Boehner and McCarthy, also pointed to a divide on "tactics" rather than a more fundamental rift.

This line of thinking, that there is allegedly some more "conservative" tactical approach to leadership in these situations, is absolutely hilarious. That if Steve Scalise, representing the more conservative members, was put on the leadership, he could show John Boehner this mystical "conservative" tactic that has somehow eluded him for four years -- or that, even if he couldn't get Boehner to change his ways, Scalise would somehow be able to persuade the unpersuadable to obey.

Here are the only two tactics available to the House leadership when it's jammed in funding situations like this: it can cave before funding expires and avoid a shutdown, or it can cave a couple of weeks after funding expires, once it's been blamed for a shutdown. Those are the only two options. The leadership's incentive is to avoid a shutdown, because government shutdowns are definitional demonstrations of failed leadership. The 50-odd members who reject the leadership's incentive is to hold the line into an indefinite shutdown, because their districts are safe Republican seats where the only threat on the horizon is that of a primary challenge from the right. Steve Scalise has no magical conservative pixie dust available to him that can change this dynamic.

And neither would that other mythical savior of ancient prophecy, The More Conservative Speaker. Last Friday's debacle has yet again set off whispers about replacing Boehner with a More Conservative Speaker. What would this figure be able to do that Boehner won't? Well, he would have a "spine," or something. It's completely unclear how a stiffer-spined speaker would help Republicans win government shutdowns. This More Conservative Speaker, perhaps a hologram of Ronald Reagan, would face the same two options: pre-shutdown cave or shutdown cave.

The House definitely needs a smarter Speaker. It has nothing to do with whether that person is moderate or conservative. Just someone who understands that it's better not to build expectations -- i.e., not to commit to achieving top ideological goals overnight through the appropriations process -- that can't be met. There should be a revolt against John Boehner, but not from the right flank: it should come from the members who are sick of Boehner committing to dead-end strategies.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Barack Obama Congress Dhs Gop House Immigration John Boehner Rino Shutdown Steve Scalise The Right