In January of 2011 John Boehner was arguably one of the happiest men in America. The son of an Ohio tavern keeper had fought his way up through the ranks and was not only accepting the gavel of office as Speaker of the House, but was presiding over the entry of one of the largest class of freshmen Republicans in the history of the nation. For a brief, giddy period, it was very good to be John Boehner.
What a difference half a year can make. His new charges had dutifully recited all of the standard promises during their respective campaigns and stoked the imaginations of conservatives across the country. Little did the new speaker know that they actually intended to keep their word. They showed up for work and, rather than lining up as dutiful children ready to learn from the wizened elders waiting to greet them, they immediately began kicking over the furniture, writing angry slogans on the walls in crayon and telling tales out of school to every media mouth with a microphone.
The irony of this is probably not lost on Boehner, who arrived in Washington back in 1990 as part of the “Gang of Seven.” They too came with a mandate to shake up the establishment, exposing corruption and generally being a giant pain in the back side to the traditional power structure. But the boot doing the kicking would appear to be on the other foot now.
Nothing has highlighted this more than the recent debt ceiling debates, where the speaker’s efforts to push around the White House and then wind up making a good old-fashioned deal have failed to gain much traction with the new kids in town. He has resorted to measures ranging from pleading to fits of pique. The former was on display when he reportedly told a closed door meeting of GOP members, “I can’t do this job unless you’re behind me.”
The latter was a bit more evident when he confessed to Laura Ingraham that he had, indeed, told his caucus to “get their asses in line” to pass his debt-ceiling proposal.
And yet, for all his efforts, some observers seem to view the current level of unrest as something approaching a full blown Republican Party meltdown, with too many “radicals” ready to pile on John Boehner and some even calling for him to step down as speaker.
Beset on multiple fronts, the Republican Study Committee was caught in the act when a staffer was found to be sending out poison pen e-mails to prominent conservative groups, suggesting they come out against Boehner’s debt reduction bill. This led to the somewhat embarrassing spectacle of yet another private meeting having details leaked out regarding a line of angry loyalists chanting, “Fire him” at Paul Teller, one of the chief culprits.
It’s not that Boehner doesn’t have allies among the old guard, though, and some are coming to his rescue. John McCain has called for a return to business as usual and for the unruly freshmen to line up behind their speaker. He went so far as to call out the Tea Party by name, calling their demands for a balanced budget amendment “foolish.” He spiced up his statements with a few more choice adjectives, including “bizarre,” pouring additional salt into the wounds.
Not everyone’s “help” may wind up being welcome. When you see the Wall Street Journal telling the “Tea Party Hobbits” to “go back to Middle Earth,” some of the wheels may be coming off the wagon.
Boehner’s opponents from the other side of the aisle — as well as their supporters — have been quick to take notice. Some of the usual suspects are absolutely gloating at what they perceive as a conservative implosion. I noticed one Democratic wag on Twitter this week chortling that the “draconian” cuts to entitlement programs might be “almost worth it just to watch the pubbies eat their own livers.”
So is there a Republican schism in process? The short answer, I’m afraid, would have to be yes, but it’s neither as deep nor as institutional as liberal critics might hope. It’s not as if one entire arm of the GOP has suddenly surrendered to their inner RINOs and become lovers of big spending and high taxes. (Though when you have loyalists breaking out the “R word” on Allen West, even in a joking fashion, you do have to wonder.)
In reality, though, what we’re seeing is a battle over style and approach rather than substance or policy. The old timers in the House have had a long time to learn to deal with the art of the possible, while the hot-blooded freshmen still seem to be embracing a take-no-prisoners mentality. What I see as the biggest difference is that the senior establishment-types have remembered that they still lack control of the upper chamber and the White House. Some of the newer folks are approaching reform as if they’ve already elected sixty Republican senators and a new president.
Hopefully John Boehner will remember the one powerful tool at his disposal which is his own experience in Congress. He’s trying to herd a very large group of belligerent bucks into the corral right now. But just two decades ago he was one of those young bucks himself. The speaker will do well to keep that in mind.