It was the sort of acrimonious exchange between co-workers that, had it happened in the private sector, would have landed the aggressors in the Human Resources office.
But John Boehner and Harry Reid are constitutional officers of the United States—the Republican speaker of the House and the Democratic Senate majority leader, respectively—so their sulphurous, X-rated squabble last Friday, in the midst of fiscal-cliff negotiations at the White House, had no consequence beyond the further coarsening of political dialogue and a decreased likelihood of bipartisan cooperation in the nation’s capital.
“Go fuck yourself,” Boehner advised Reid as they crossed paths just outside the Oval Office.
“What are you talking about?” Reid asked in surprise.
“Go fuck yourself,” Boehner explained.
In the annals of Washington dysfunction, the nasty back and forth was memorable, though certainly not unprecedented. Who can forget South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s shout, “You lie!”—in the middle of President Obama’s September 2009 health-care speech to Congress? Indeed, Boehner’s outburst was a near-verbatim replay of Vice President Dick Cheney’s notorious recommendation to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) eight years ago on the Senate floor. (Cheney was irate about Leahy’s attacks on his former company, Halliburton.)
“To put things in perspective, this is not one lawmaker punching another, or caning him half to death, so I don’t want to hype its impact,” said American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman J. Ornstein, co-author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. “But the fact that Boehner dropped a couple of f-bombs on his Senate counterpart, and in the White House at that, reflects the tribal nature of our politics these days, and the less-than-cordial relationships that exist among and between the congressional leaders. Having said that, we can all thank Dick Cheney for his pioneering role.”
In this case, the speaker apparently was seething over the majority leader’s accusation, on the floor of the Senate Dec. 27, that he’s running a “dictatorship” in the House of Representatives, refusing to take up tax legislation that he knew would pass with Democratic votes but just not with a majority of House Republicans.
“John Boehner seems to care more about his speakership than about keeping the nation on firm financial footing,” Reid asserted in a more personal vein, adding that Boehner was simply trying to save his own skin and assure his reelection as speaker on Jan. 3. This, after the “Plan B” debacle—“and it was a debacle,” Reid gloated—demonstrated Boehner’s inability to keep his unruly Republicans in line.
Tough words, to be sure, but arguably family-friendly. Boehner’s scatological response seems out of character for a politician notable for his congeniality. But even more remarkable is how the public even knows about this confidential encounter. According to Politico,Boehner “bragged about” the dustup to Republican House members as they prepared to vote Tuesday night on Senate-approved legislation to allow taxes to rise on the wealthy—a measure all the more unpalatable to much of Boehner’s constituency because it was supported by President Obama. Addressing a roomful of professional media hounds, the speaker had to know that it would take precisely a nanosecond for the anecdote to become a headline.
“It’s the kind of language that’s used regularly in private discussions—what’s stunning is that he bragged about it,” said Brookings Institution scholar Thomas E. Mann, Ornstein’s co-author. “The motive is that he had to go back on the Hastert Rule [named for former Republican Speaker Denny Hastert, who wouldn’t bring major legislation to the floor unless it was supported by a ‘majority of the majority’] and therefore his speakership is threatened and the party is threatened. If they refuse to bring it to the floor and we go over the cliff, anything bad that happens will be blamed on the House Republicans, period. So he’s softening his membership by showing what a tough guy he is with Reid.”
Mann elaborated: “It means he’s hanging tough and using macho language, and in the end he got the job done… My own view is that Boehner’s probably made the most of what he can do with what he’s working with—a political party that’s just gone whacko. That’s a technical term.”
Political scientist Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the decline of civility in Congress—and says Nevada’s Harry Reid is a repeat offender. “He’s known for these sort of strange outbursts,” she said.
Her web site, Flackcheck.org, chronicles the overheated rhetoric—or “WOW (way out of whack) attacks”—of elected officials, especially Reid, who once referred to a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as “a first-class rat” and “a treacherous, miserable liar”; called President George W. Bush “a loser”; and accused Republicans of favoring increased levels of arsenic and mercury in the water supply. Reid’s trashing of Boehner was only his latest adventure in breaking the boundaries of political discourse.
“The tendency in contemporary discourse,” Jamieson said, “is someone makes an accusation about how someone else has behaved, they respond by making a personal attack, and then someone calls somebody a liar and that ends the discussion.” Boehner’s conversation-ender with Reid—and his eagerness to brag about it—can be categorized, Jamieson said, as “the masculine assertion of dominance: ‘I got the upper hand.’ It also expresses our collective frustration. ‘I really told him!’”
Jamieson added: “You recognize that kind of exchange from locker-room talk in private conversations, largely among men. You don’t expect congressional leaders to use that kind of language with each other and brag about it—especially just outside the Oval Office.”
The nuclear fallout from the Boehner-Reid faceoff doesn’t bode well for the future of their relationship—never mind that these two congressional leaders will be forced at times to do business with each other. Yet anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist—who spent much of Wednesday on television and radio defending the speaker against charges that he violated the notorious Norquist “pledge”—insists that Boehner’s anatomically impractical guidance to Reid has raised Boehner’s stock with his membership on the eve of their decision on whether to reelect him as speaker.
“He was responding to the lack of civility from the Democrat on the Senate floor,” Norquist said. “It was all about Reid being completely out of line, and he was slapping him down for his unacceptable behavior. There’s a difference between shooting and shooting back… It will raise up Boehner in his members’ affections. They will feel warm and fuzzy.”