THE PUBLIC EYE: Inside John Boehner

By Bob Burnett
Friday October 11, 2013 - 07:32:00 PM

As the Republican shutdown of the Federal government moves into its second week, it’s widely believed House Speaker John Boehner could end the impasse by permitting the continuing budget resolution and debt limit increase to be voted upon. Why won’t he?

There are three explanations for Boehner’s intransigence. His base doesn’t want him to permit the vote and he is beholden to them. He’s gotten in over his head and doesn’t know how to end the Republican shutdown without looking like a fool. A third alternative is that Boehner is playing his part in a Machiavellian GOP strategy that has forced the US to the edge of financial chaos in the hopes of getting horrific concessions from the Obama Administration.

On Sunday, October 6th, Boehner appeared on the ABC news program This Week. When asked if the House of Representatives would pass a debt limit increase unencumbered by policy demands (such as defunding Obamacare), Boehner replied, “We’re not going to pass a clean debt limit increase.”

He should know better. Bloomberg News described failure to increase the debt limit as a “financial apocalypse:” 

Failure by the world’s largest borrower to pay its debt -- unprecedented in modern history -- will devastate stock markets from Brazil to Zurich, halt a $5 trillion lending mechanism for investors who rely on Treasuries, blow up borrowing costs for billions of people and companies, ravage the dollar and throw the U.S. and world economies into a recession that probably would become a depression.

While most Americans agree with this assessment, Boehner’s base feels otherwise. An October 2nd CNN poll found that 52 percent of Republicans thought failure to raise the debt ceiling would be “a good thing” (64 percent of Tea-party supporters shared this sentiment). 

Many believe that Speaker Boehner has been forced to take this position because a radical minority controls his caucus. The New York Times noted there are roughly two-dozen Tea-Party conservatives representatives who are leading the House GOP: 

Their numbers may be small, but they are large enough to threaten the speaker’s job if he were to turn to Democrats to pass a spending bill that reopened the government without walloping the health law. Their strategy is to yield no ground until they are able to pass legislation reining in the health care law.

However, the number of reactionaries within Boehner’s caucus is actually much larger than pundits believe. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein interviewed Republican insider, Robert Costa, who explained the allegiances of the 232 Republican house members: “There are 30 to 40 true hardliners. But there’s another group of maybe 50 to 60 members who are very much pressured by the hardliners.” Thus, Speaker Boehner represents a divided caucus where roughly half the representatives support the radical Tea-party perspective. 

This ideological split mirrors the state of the Republican Party. On October 3rd, pollster Stan Greenberg’s Democracy Corps published Inside the GOP about three Republican focus groups: Evangelicals, Tea-Party members, and moderates. Greenberg observed, “Evangelicals are a third of the Republican base” and “Tea Party enthusiasts form just over a fifth of the base Republican voters… [They] are cheered on for the moment by the Evangelicals who are depending on their conservative backbone.” 

Given the contentious nature of the GOP, some believe Boehner is in over his head as Speaker of the House. Robert Costa observed: 

I think John Boehner is frustrated by leading the Republicans in the House but I think he very much loves being speaker… He loves being a major American political figure, but he’s not a Newt Gingrich-like figure trying to lead the party in a certain direction. He’s just trying to survive and enjoy it while it lasts.

Nonetheless, there’s good reason to believe that John Boehner is actually an actor playing his part in a staged Republican drama. Political commentator Jonathan Chait reported that in response to Obama’s reelection, House Republicans, including Boehner, formulated “The Williamsburg Accord:” 

Initially, House Republicans decided to boycott all direct negotiations with President Obama, and then subsequently extended that boycott to negotiations with the Democratic Senate… Republicans have planned since January to force Obama to accede to large chunks of the Republican agenda, without Republicans having to offer any policy concessions of their own.

The New York Times corroborated this, noting: 

Shortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III gathered in the capital to plot strategy…. a little-noticed “blueprint to defunding Obamacare,” signed by Mr. Meese and leaders of more than three dozen conservative groups… articulated a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy that had long percolated in conservative circles: that Republicans could derail the health care overhaul if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans — including their cautious leaders — into cutting off financing for the entire federal government.

What we’re seeing unfold in Washington is a diabolical Republican power play, in which John Boehner has the leading role. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at