04.07.11

Why I Pity Boehner

The speaker's been on the wrong side of Republican sentiment in the past, and spent years climbing back up the leadership ladder. Michelle Cottle on the stakes this time.

I realize the usual reaction of journalists to the sort of high-octane political drama we’re witnessing with the budget showdown is to kick back with a laptop and a latte and gleefully document all the juicy mud-slinging and finger-pointing: Your team is imperiling America! No, your team is!

But this week, as I watched Speaker John Boehner laboring to herd his raw, rowdy conference toward a deal that would avert a government shutdown, my overwhelming impulse has been to cradle the genial Ohioan’s umber cheeks in my hands and assure him that everything is going to be all right.

No question, Boehner is having a rough time of it, trying to impose order where very little exists. "Speaker Boehner is under a lot of pressure," says Republican leadership aide-turned-strategist Ron Bonjean. “So far, he's acted like a pilot flying a plane through severe turbulence, calmly speaking to passengers.”

Boehner’s choice, increasingly, seems to be between shutting down the government—and, in all likelihood, inflicting serious damage on his party—and cutting a deal that would put him on the outs with a big chunk of his members and possibly endanger his leadership position. It’s a choice between two immensely unappetizing options. And no one knows the risks better than Boehner, who is in the unique position of having already suffered through both outcomes.

Unlike many in his conference, the 20-year veteran had a front-row seat for Newt Gingrich’s 1995 shutdown. Boehner knows just how quickly voters stop worrying about their ideological principles and start worrying about their missing services. Bad-mouthing Washington is all well and good until folks can’t get their tax refunds or their passports or their Social Security applications processed. And while it may sound trivial, all those nice families who get turned away from their long-planned visits to Yosemite or Yellowstone can get seriously grumpy. (In a bit of perfect timing, National Parks Week runs April 16-24.)

His Tea-Partying revolutionaries are confident the public is on their side in this struggle—this despite polls showing it’s not.

Patricia Murphy: The Tea Party’s Budget Freakout

Daniel Stone: The Capitol Hill Shutdown Slumber Party

Government Shutdown: Full coverage
At the same time, though, getting booted from the leadership is not a hypothetical for this Mr. Speaker. After a disappointing election for his party in 1998, he was ousted as Republican conference chairman. It took him 12 long years to climb back up the leadership ladder—a feat few pols ever manage—and it seems safe to say that, if he falls again, he doesn’t have a third act in him.

So here the speaker finds himself: held hostage by a pack of purists who he fears are going to gravely injure the party but who, if not adequately appeased, will turn and savage him.

There’s little doubt that, given his druthers, Boehner would have charted a dramatically different flight path. He is no rigid ideologue. His inclination has long been to make the compromise, cut the deal, get ’er done. In a closed-door conference meeting Monday night, Boehner warned his members that shutting down the government would be a huge political “win” for the opposition. His Tea-Partying revolutionaries, however, are confident the public is on their side in this struggle—this despite polls showing it’s not.

Isn’t that the way of every batch of crusaders to come riding into town? Aren’t they always convinced they’re the first people ever with the courage and integrity to stick by their principles? As a Democratic old-bull recently told me of the incoming House freshmen: “They’re going to drive Boehner nuts.” Not because the class is unusually ideological, the congressman explained, but simply because it is “enormous.” “Big classes tend to believe all the stuff that is said about them—how they’re here to save the bloody world. They get all the fancy committee assignments. Everybody kisses their asses. They get bloated, self-important, and impossible to deal with. They don’t know anything, but they think they know everything.”

Boehner, by contrast, knows all too well just how difficult governing can be. A few years back, he chuckled to me about how much easier it was to be in the minority and recalled what a shock to the system it had been when Republicans took the House in 1994 for the first time in four decades. “No one realized—no one realized how much more work it is,” he stressed, reaching, of course, for a sports metaphor. “You hand the football off to a fullback, and he’s gotta run with it. It’s a big job.”

Boehner is also well aware that being in charge means you get the lion’s share of the blame for unpopular things that occur on your watch.

Hill-savvy Republicans keep assuring me that Boehner is in his element with this fight. “Boehner's a pro,” John Feehery, another ex-leadership aide, insists. “He knows exactly what he is doing.”

Maybe. But he certainly understands how ugly things could get if he fails to thread this particular needle exactly right. Boehner doesn’t just know it. He’s lived it.

Michelle Cottle is a Washington reporter for The Daily Beast.