Ever since John Boehner’s “fiscal cliff” backup plan went down in flames on Thursday, there’s been a flood of speculation as to whether he can still survive as speaker of the House. But there’s a very fundamental question that a lot of people floating this possibility need to address: Why on earth would anybody want the job?
Boehner is in an impossible situation. Details aside, the bottom line is that Boehner won’t be able to negotiate any deal that will satisfy President Obama and pass the Democratic Senate that would also be remotely acceptable to House conservatives. So, if he shows a willingness to strike a deal with Obama that passes with Democratic support, he’ll be blasted by conservatives for caving. Should he refuse to negotiate, he’ll be lambasted as intransigent and take the brunt of the public blame for any consequences that come from a failure to reach a deal. And this isn’t limited to the current “fiscal cliff” debate. It goes for any future showdowns over the debt ceiling, a potential government shutdown, or any other issues that come up. This will be the case at least until after the 2014 election, should Republicans figure out a way to regain control of the Senate and shakeup the current political dynamic.
Most people would agree that it’s unlikely that, for lack of a better term, an “establishment” member of the House GOP caucus would challenge Boehner. So any challenge is more likely to come from a conservative frustrated with his lack of progress on cutting spending. But right now, if you’re a conservative in the House, the current state of affairs is quite good with Boehner in charge — at least as far as your career is concerned. You get to blast any deal that gets struck, reiterating your support for lowering taxes, reducing spending and reforming entitlements — all of which burnishes your “true conservative” credentials. You get to go home to your constituents and attack back door Washington dealmaking. And if no deal gets struck and Republicans get blamed for any consequences that ensue, it’s Boehner that will absorb punishment as the public face of the party. Sure, the media will generically blast “tea party extremists” — but no individual member will be singled out for blame. And individual members can argue that if only Boehner had listened to them and pursued a different strategy, Republicans could have won the showdown. But if you’re actually in charge, suddenly you’re the one in the cross hairs. You become tainted by the Washington process. And because everybody who is being intellectually honest knows that Obama will never sign on to a small government agenda, you’re destined to be ineffective and to lose your conservative street cred.
If somebody else does end up taking over as speaker, my guess is it will be because Boehner just stepped aside in frustration — essentially saying, “Fine, if somebody else thinks that they can do a better job under these circumstances, go for it.” I can see the headline now: “Boehner shrugs.”