Being John Boehner

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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As Republicans and Democrats face off over the “fiscal cliff,”  the spotlight is on Speaker of the House John Boehner. In many ways, this is unfair. Unlike President Obama, he lacks the trappings of the presidency — and the bully pulpit. What is more, he cannot act unilaterally.

Regardless, this fight may very well impact Boehner’s future Speakership — and his legacy.

This showdown has already provided an opportunity for his critics to highlight his weakness.

As Salon’s Steve Kornacki writes,

The problem, as we’ve seen since he claimed the Speaker’s gavel, is that Boehner has unusually little pull with his own members. He was next in line when the 2010 tidal wave carried Republicans back to majority status in the House, but dozens of his fellow Republicans – not to mention the conservative activists, interest groups leaders and media personalities who Republican members of Congress take their cues from – doubted his ideological purity.

He continues,

Because of who he is, Boehner is poorly positioned to lead Republicans toward the kind of compromise that Obama is demanding (and has the leverage to back up).

(Interestingly, Kornacki assumes a strong Republican leader is one who can get Republicans to accede to Democrats’ demands — an interesting definition of power. Moreover, he seems to assume that Republican opposition to raising taxes is a cause for gridlock, but fails to assign the same level of blame to the other side’s stubborn opposition to entitlement reform.)

Still, Kornacki raises a fair point — that John Boehner is in a very difficult spot.

This, of course, is true. But rather than being the result of some unique failing on Boehner’s part, in my new column for The Week, I argue that Boehner confronts structural and societal changes that didn’t plague former leaders:

In the “good old days,” Congressional leaders could reward cooperating members with earmarks, plum committee assignments, and re-election money and support. They could punish recalcitrant members by withholding such favors. All of this, of course, happened mostly behind the scenes.


Today, things are different (though not entirely different). Having largely sworn off earmarks, there are fewer bridges and roads to bribe members with. And the emergence of new outside groups like The Club for Growth — that help fund members who stand up to the establishment — have changed the incentive structure.

Meanwhile, this trend coincides with the growing lack of trust in leaders and institutions — and a general lack of respect for leaders — that has been taking place in our society at least since Vietnam.

Read the whole thing here — and you decide who’s right.

Matt K. Lewis