Faux Pas

John Boehner’s Holiday Party Snub

Speaker Boehner declines to be photographed with President Obama at a holiday party. Michelle Cottle on the roots of political pettiness—and what Boehner should do next year.

12.05.12 9:45 AM ET

As party fouls go, John Boehner’s declining to get his photo taken with President Obama at the White House Christmas soiree is pretty innocuous. It’s not like the Speaker lit up in the Blue Room, or started snacking on the traditional gingerbread White House, or tied one on and began crooning Clarence Carter’s “Backdoor Santa” to FLOTUS. (Although, how fantastic would that have been?)    

Nonetheless, Boehner’s photographic demurral—like his ongoing refusal to attend State dinners—stands as yet one more example of the lack of civility and general pettiness that now reign inside the Beltway.

Of course, it also stands as proof that the speaker is no idiot and that he knows all too well that, should a merry grip-and-grin of him and Obama somehow make its way into the public eye during these oh-so-tense fiscal-cliff negotiations, the GOP’s right flank would be all over his perma-tanned hide like a duck on a june bug.

“Next thing you know, people in his caucus would be grumbling, ‘He’s just not a believer like us. He’s over there yukking it up with President Obama! Did you see that picture of him and Obama together!’ I’m sure that went through his mind,” chuckles Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. 

Sabato has a hard time talking about the Boehner-Obama public tango without bursting into laughter. “Pettiness is the lifeblood of politics,” he observes. “It inflates the ego,” which in turn opens up endless opportunity for slights both real and perceived.

“How many times have we read over the past four years that the greatest outrage in America today is that so many of these congressmen, especially Democrats, have not been invited to a cocktail party inside the White House?” gasps Sabato, seized by another laughing fit. “The horror! The horror! It’s almost unbearable!”

Given that politicians so often behave like thin-skinned, narcissistic clowns, though, what repercussions do such “snubs” have on governing? Many of us vividly recall the Newt Gingrich’s shutting down the government because Bill Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One. Doesn’t politicians’ giving the finger to social niceties further fuel the toxic incivility that makes governing so tough these days?

“I don’t take a lot of that stuff terribly seriously,” says AEI think-tanker Norman Ornstein, co-author of the 2012 book on congressional dysfunction It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Boehner and Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are all “experienced negotiators and politicians,” he observes. “They do what is in the hard-nosed interests of themselves and their parties. And if that means having to make a few concessions and cut a deal with somebody they don’t much like and are really pissed at, they’ll go ahead and do it.”

Besides, says Ornstein, far from being a heartfelt expression of Boehner’s antipathy toward Obama, the decision to skip the photo line was more likely a carefully calculated political maneuver. “That doesn’t mean Boehner can’t be pissed off at the president at the same time. But believe me, if he were supremely pissed off but thought it would give him more leverage either with the president or his own restive troops, he’d be down on his hands and knees kissing Obama’s rear end.”

As it is, Boehner has to assuage conservatives’ fears that he is a too-chummy-to-be-trusted insider who will sell them out. “You have to maintain enough credibility in the deal that you can deliver your own troops,” says Ornstein. Shrewder still, he says, in addition to signaling his own members, “Boehner is also sending a signal to the White House that he’s going to have some trouble here, and that they’re going to have to give him a little slack.”

With so much signaling and posturing and calculating going on, it’s little wonder that so many people are fed up with Washington. Maybe next year, someone should just spike the punch and crank up the Clarence Carter. It might not help with the partisan ugliness, but at least people could have a little fun.