Here are the two questions that really matter this week as we head toward a possible government shutdown. How many Republicans in the House really would consider a shutdown as some kind of victory? And what is John Boehner prepared to do about them? Whatever the answer to the first question, the answer to the second is almost sure to be “not much.” Boehner is easily the worst House speaker in modern history. Far from being the figure of perverse sympathy that some suggest, he embodies exactly what’s wrong with the GOP—mainstream conservatism’s total capitulation to the extremists. He’s a disgrace.
We’ve come to expect the Big Crazy from these Republicans, so we all kind of accepted the idea Friday that the House attached the defund-Obamacare provisions to its resolution to keep funding the government. But really. Stop and think about it. It’s totally outrageous that a speaker of the House of Representatives would even allow such a measure to get to the floor. The speaker is the second–most important person in the country in terms of making the country work. He’s more important than the Senate leader because spending bills must originate in the House, and the House, which in theory is closer to the people, was always envisioned as the body that would do more to drive the nation’s legislative agenda. It’s not for nothing that the speaker of the House is third in the line of presidential succession. He’s not supposed to agree with the president, but he is supposed to agree that the government should exist and do affirmative things.
And what do we have? A speaker who has permitted 40 votes repealing a duly passed law and who then agreed to let his extremists hold the operation of the entire government hostage to its fantasies. And fantasies they are. Everyone knows that. Obamacare is not being defunded. Even Ted Cruz knows it deep down.
Imagine if the Democrats had pulled something similar in recent years. Say, if Nancy Pelosi had threatened a government shutdown over some law that had passed while George W. Bush was president and Denny Hastert was speaker. Oh, the thunderation we’d have heard! The howlers on the right would have relished bringing up nullification, comparing Pelosi and the Democrats with the South Carolinians of the 1830s. They would have loved that chance to compare Democrats with the racist kooks who drove the country to civil war. They would have had the power to create a reality in which most Americans were persuaded that Pelosi was channeling Angela Davis, threatening the FBI with furloughs and the military with deep cuts because she caved in to her caucus’s looney wing trying to refight a battle she lost legislatively when it mattered.
So we are in crazy sand up to our ribcages. A speaker with any guts at all would have said to his caucus: “You people are out of your frickin’ minds. I am not letting this hit the floor.” And that would have been the end of it. And don’t tell me a speaker can’t do that anymore. Pelosi did. You want to talk about tough speakers who knew how to keep their caucuses in line? Compared with Pelosi, Boehner really is a Nancy Boy.
Of course, there is a different between Pelosi’s and Boehner’s caucuses. The most left-wing Democrats in Pelosi’s caucus aren’t nearly as left wing as Boehner’s right wingers are right wing, and the House lefties didn’t come to Washington to burn anything down. So in this sense Boehner’s job has been harder. But he hasn’t even tried to stand up to the hostage takers. And that’s how extremists take over. Everyone who knows better cowers before them. Boehner has at every turn. He talks out of both sides of his mouth, making one statement to assuage mainstream opinion for every two or three he makes to placate the hard right, which just adds to the rudderlessness and weakness he conveys.
So this week, as we head toward a possible shutdown, he’s doing the same thing. And he’s going to spend the week playing games. The Senate is going to send back to the House a “clean” spending bill without the defunding of Obamacare. Boehner, being held by the nose by his wingers, is going to respond with some ridiculous counter, like dropping the defunding demand but substituting for it a plank that cancels out the fines Obamacare would impose on people who refuse to participate. White meat for the base, in lieu of red.
In the end, he will probably have to allow some kind of vote to keep the government open. Unless he can drastically alter public opinion in a week, he knows his party is going to be blamed for a shutdown, and he can’t have that. So he’ll probably let a vote happen, even if it means breaking the Hastert Rule.
That will mark the beginning of the end of his speakership. He’ll have another 14 months. If this were Hollywood, he’d give the great, noble, Jefferson Smith speech, tell his crazies where to stuff it, dedicate himself to the passage of bipartisan immigration reform, and go out with a little dignity. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s Washington. Boehner doesn’t want to make any great moral points. He wants to get the hell out of there, go to K Street, make a few million a year, and spend more time golfing. Taking moral stands can only impede that greasy path.
So Boehner will limp toward retirement. In all likelihood his legacy will be failing completely in his job as co-governor and ceding control of his caucus to extremists. And here’s the worst part: all of the above is the good news. The bad news? His successor will be far worse.