Advancing a Free Society

For Boehner, allowing rebellion now fends off a revolution later

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wednesday’s failed vote in the House on a continuing resolution to provide appropriations for the beginning of FY12 cast new doubts on Speaker Boehner's ability to make deals that can get through the Democratic Senate while not losing critical votes from conservatives in the House. It also raised the specter of a government shutdown, or at least another round of budget brinksmanship, which the Republican leadership would, reasonably, like to avoid.

But, on balance, votes like Wednesday’s can work to Boehner’s favor looking to the 2012 elections and into the next Congress.

Wednesday, Republicans in the right flank of the conference cast votes that certify their Cut-Cut-Cut credentials. As long as these members can point to these kinds of votes, they lower their risk of facing a Tea Party-backed primary challenger from even further to the right.

For all Boehner’s problems now, his conference only becomes more difficult to cohere if the most conservative members are more conservative or if there are even more members further to the right. (There’s also the question of whether he would be able to retain the speakership against a more conservative challenger from within the party.) I’m not suggesting that the House Republican leadership was looking to lose a vote, but there is political value to Boehner in letting the far right in the conference engage in a bit of public rebellion.

Boehner also enjoys the luxury of creating opportunities for the rank-and-file to take actions that will be portrayed by critics as “obstructionist” without doing major damage to the prospect the Republicans keep their House majority. Not to encourage overconfidence among Republicans, but, if history is any guide, the congressional Republicans can take some dings over the next year and still run the House in 2013 with at least something close to the current 242 seat majority.

Because presidential elections are usually won and lost on economic fundamentals, specifically, the unemployment rate and GDP growth, the president is unarguably in big trouble right now. Consider that along with this fact: looking at the period since 1945, no party has captured the presidency from the other party and lost hold of a House or Senate majority. The closest we came to that was the 2000 election, when George W. Bush won the electoral vote but not the popular vote. Without the benefit of long presidential coat tails, Republicans lost 4 Senate seats (but retained control of the 50-50 chamber by the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Cheney) and saw their already slim House majority reduced from 223 to 221. If unemployment remains near 10% and the economy fails to recover, Republican congressional candidates are likely to do well in 2012 regardless of their own political transgressions.

The current worst case scenario for Republicans probably isn’t any worse than it was for the Democrats in 1992, when Clinton made George H.W. Bush a one-term president and the Democrats picked up one more Senate seat (going from 56 to 57) but lost 9 House seats, taking their majority from 267 to 258.

For now, Boehner’s best bet is to run the House in a way that gives members the opportunity to help themselves now and, by doing so, help him later. Letting the House “work its will,” as Boehner described it in a press conference after Wednesday’s vote, is an unruly but necessary part of that.

(photo credit: Medill DC)