Opinion: Boehner’s loss of control sad to watch

September 29, 2013


— In the line of succession, House Speaker John Boehner is the third ranking official in the country. In actual fact, he has all but disappeared. Even Democrats should hope that Boehner gets his mojo back.

Boehner’s collapse as speaker has been sad to watch. Unable to control his own caucus, negotiate effectively with the president or pass legislation, he flounders in office — a likable man who is utterly ineffective. He is the prisoner of the extreme wing of his party, and of his supposed lieutenants, such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who spend their time pandering to the extremists rather than helping Boehner lead.

Boehner’s problem is that he is unable to deliver the 218 House Republicans  for any pragmatic piece of legislation. He survives from crisis to crisis, thanks to Democratic votes that salvage last-minute compromises. But on major issues that Boehner personally supports, such as immigration reform, he has been powerless.

We are seeing the consequences of a leaderless House in the GOP’s renewed threat of a government shutdown or debt-ceiling default. These reckless actions are part of a grandstand play to reverse the Affordable Care Act, which begins to take effect in October, but they’ve assumed an illogic of their own. The House Republicans seem almost to enjoy holding the country hostage. Their version of Russian Roulette has become so familiar that we forget just how outrageous it is.

Boehner surely knows this course is folly. Legislation to defund Obamacare won’t pass Congress. And the GOP’s brinkmanship, however popular with the right wing, is damaging the party nationally. But Boehner simply cannot control his members. His latest maneuver last week was an example: He is urging his right-wing members to back off the crazy shutdown idea only by threatening an even crazier debt default.

Boehner declared his impotence during a July 21 interview on “Face the Nation.” Moderator Bob Schieffer asked him to express support for the comprehensive immigration bill he had earlier said he favored. “If I come out and say I’m for this and I’m for that, all I’m doing is making my job harder,” answered Boehner. “This is not about me,” he said several times, as if abdication of control were some kind of virtue.

A dumbfounded Schieffer responded: “That is kind of an interesting take on leadership, though. In other words, you don’t see yourself as someone who has an agenda. You’re there to just sort of manage whatever your people want to do?”

Cantor has cunningly worked to undermine his nominal boss. By often allying himself with the roughly 40 tea-party extremists who refuse any compromise with Obama, Cantor gives them political oxygen. He encourages their showboating, as on the bill he championed this month to slash the food-stamp program. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, described this bill as “a monumental waste of time.” House committee chairmen ignore Boehner; they know Cantor is the guy with the knife.

This dysfunction isn’t built into the system. It’s a result of human failure. President Obama gets pummeled daily for his weak leadership but compared with Boehner, he’s a titan.

It’s useful to remember a time when House speakers were able to cut deals that put the country’s interests first. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews describes such a moment in his new book, “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked.” It was early 1981, and a newly elected President Ronald Reagan needed the votes of the House Democratic majority to, yes, raise the debt ceiling. House Speaker Tip O’Neill (for whom Matthews worked at the time) agreed — on condition that Reagan send “thank you” letters to all the Democrats who backed his request.

Perhaps O’Neill is an unfair comparison. He had the rare combination of loyal lieutenants and a president who, for all ideological bluster, wanted to govern effectively. But even by comparison with GOP conservatives Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert, Boehner has been a disappointment. He doesn’t have Gingrich’s intellectual horsepower or Hastert’s deal-making savvy. 

Nancy Pelosi wasn’t a perfect speaker, but she showed that a strong leader can enforce discipline even within a House majority that’s being pulled toward its extreme wing by activists, interest groups and the effects of redistricting. She wielded power, sometimes ruthlessly, to keep her committee chairmen and rank-and-file members in line.

 I’d love to celebrate Boehner for finding a way to re-empower the speakership and lead the House GOP. But he seems to have given up. 

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Abdu Omar 4 years, 5 months ago

Good summation. Either lead, or follow or get out of the way.

Armstrong 4 years, 5 months ago

If you substituted Obama for Boehner in this piece it would still be accurate. You're right wounded either lead, follow or get out of the way.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

Just curious - how exactly can one "lead" a group of people determined to obstruct?

Liberty275 4 years, 5 months ago

I'm not a leader, but I guess you start by having the group research the best ways to obstruct the law and then tell them to go do it. Maybe tell them they are great Americans and our only hope, and give them some money or something.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago


Not what I meant, of course, but I'm sure you know that.

In_God_we_trust 4 years, 5 months ago

Obstruct is a misnomer, it is just the other side not allowed to get everything they want. Compromise would be a better term.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

The R in Congress made it their explicit purpose very early on in Obama's presidency to simply obstruct him - they wanted to make him a one term president.

Given that attitude, expecting Obama (or anybody else in his position) to be able to "lead" them isn't reasonable.

Beth Newman 4 years, 5 months ago

Anyone who can still believe that compromise is a Republican virtue, rather than an obstructionist one, is not living in an accurate political reality.

In_God_we_trust 4 years, 5 months ago

There is a reason that you have that view. President Obama brought radical extremist policies, not main stream, and has pushed these views against this country, with the blind backing of the democrats. Gay lifestyle, gun control, wild overspending on policies that will bankrupt the country, division of the people in this country over subjects like race, rich vs. poor, immigration of illegal aliens, etc. Nothing this President has proposed has been good for the country to date. Nothing in this list is agreeable to the mainstream middle Americans. President Obama has done nothing to lessen regulation to help employment to improve. Rather he has pushed through with only democratic votes the ACA which has suffocated job creation and recovery. The ACA would implement 21 new taxes on a down economy, increasing the damage to good jobs, and harming the view of employers that is it safe to start hiring again. So I stand behind most of the Republican efforts because they are things that will help this country avoid bankruptcy and a loss of morality and honor and rebuild employment. (Which President Obama has made no real attempt to do in 5 years).

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

Ok - so you're a very partisan R.

I find that sort of thing unconvincing, from either side of the aisle.

Maddy Griffin 4 years, 5 months ago

He gave all his power away the first time he gave in to the Tea Party. Couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy.

Liberty275 4 years, 5 months ago

Either Boehner fights the aca every chance he gets or he will be primaried out. Right now, he is not doing neatly enough to oppose the aca. If he was in an election campaign, I would send money to his primary challenger.

Either he gets the job done, or he gets the boot .

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

That indicates the disturbing trend towards extremism in primaries.

Also, I find "obstructionism" to be an unsatisfactory model for governance.

OlDan 4 years, 5 months ago

Depends on your point of view I suppose. I consider the current administration to be the extremists. It seems to me that the far left attacks and attempts to change everything about America. They gain support by pandering and giving away free stuff. Definitely not responsible governing and definitely bad for the future of this country.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

Yes it does.

We don't actually have any "far left" members of Congress, unless you re-define the center as being over towards the right quite a bit.

OlDan 4 years, 5 months ago

Not even Bernie Sanders (self described Democratic Socialist)? I would say he's pretty far left. The point is that the Ds have moved so far left considering where they were when JFK was President, that they do not resemble the same party at all. Many of their ideas sprang from the radicals (at the time) of the late 60s. Are you old enough to remember the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and others who declared war on the United States and wreaked havoc during those times? It seems to this old timer that many of the ideas of these radicals are touted as mainstream and incorporated into the D agenda.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago


Seems to me that the R have moved far to the right, and that conservatives have managed to redefine the center as closer to where they are.

I'll have to look at Sanders.

Do you have any examples of radical far left ideas that have been incorporated into mainstream D?

Liberty275 4 years, 5 months ago

Abortion on demand, unfettered illegal immigration and legalized drug possession.

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

Well, no mainstream D believe in "abortion on demand" without some restrictions that I know of.

Similarly about illegal immigration.

And, few mainstream folks of either sort advocate legalized drugs - that's still the purview of libertarians and far left people.

meggers 4 years, 5 months ago

Bernie Sanders is an Independent, not a Democrat.

tomatogrower 4 years, 5 months ago

Except the very poor no one is getting free health care. They're being forced to be responsible for having health insurance, and forcing the insurance companies to not rip off their insured. I'm sorry you don't have insurance, but it wouldn't hurt you to get some. It's the adult, responsible thing to do. This is to Oledan

OlDan 4 years, 5 months ago

This is to tomatogrower. I do have insurance.

riverdrifter 4 years, 5 months ago

I saw that edition of Face The Nation. I thought Schieffer was going to fall out of his chair. Boehner is the politician's version of Lane Kiffin.

deec 4 years, 5 months ago

You do understand that the article is about Boehner, right? Perhaps you could try to stay on topic.

Lisa Medsker 4 years, 5 months ago

Still waiting on those examples of "Far Left Policy"...

Richard Heckler 4 years, 5 months ago

Republican Party shutting down the government is stupid and reckless beyond belief. That shuts down trillions of tax dollars coming to our communities nationwide which could very well cause a ton more unemployment. Have these people no brains?

As if the Reagan/Bush home loan scandal were not enough there were millions more jobs lost as a result of the world wide calamity aka Bush/Cheney home loan fiasco. This GOP party is all about economic chaos NOT economic growth and new industry.

This GOP can put people out of work at the speed of light but is incapable of putting these unfortunate workers back to work. Putting millions of workers back to work is the key to reviving this economy. Where are the bold democrats?

The other day I was stunned after reading how much had been lost between August 2000 and February 2004. Manufacturing jobs were lost for a stunning 43 consecutive months—the longest such stretch since the Great Depression. Can anyone believe such poor management from the highest levels of government?

It was also noted that 51,000 manufacturing plants in the last decade went up in smoke creating more than a 12.5 percent loss, between 1998 and 2008. What the hell is going on?

These stable, middle-class jobs have been the driving force of the U.S. economy for decades and these losses have done considerable damage to communities across the country. What is the USA government doing other than catering to special interest campaign funds?

As a registered republican I have been convinced this GOP is no longer republican but most certainly right wing and reckless. I'll be looking to vote democrat,Green Party or whatever it takes to put America back to work. This country most assuredly needs some bold new faces in the democrat party as well. As for the GOP I'm afraid is a goner ..... dead. How sad.

Considering all of the above can the USA sustain the war spending and put Americans back to work at the same time? I am not so sure.

Trumbull 4 years, 5 months ago

The ACA is not really that big of a deal. The R's are using it as a device to obstruct, and to the peril of us all. We very well could have reached the point that our credit rating will be downgraded again like it was in 2011. The last time, the reason was the dysfunctional congress. If this happens we will likely see the interest rate on our debt load increase. This will be very bad. Not very fiscally conservative is it?

Again the ACA is not to big a deal. I just looked at my own booklet.....300+ pages. Man we can sure bog ourselves down by making things way more complicated than they need to be.

In_God_we_trust 4 years, 5 months ago

Actually the R's have provided a way for the government to be funded twice. If it is not funded, it will be the doings of Sen. Harry Reid and President Obama, that are responsible for shutting the government down unnecessarily. Harry Reid can fund the government and quit playing games, and work on ACA later when no damage to the economy will be done.

Brian Laird 4 years, 5 months ago

You actually believe this nonsense? It 's like saying that if kidnapper kills a hostage that it was the family's fault that they didn't pay the ransom. The Rebublicsns can't get this done through the normal democratic process, so they resort to extortion.

Richard Heckler 4 years, 5 months ago

Shutting down government over Obamacare = GOP threatening to Default on the nations debt which is remarkable and insane.

This would be the third major global financial crisis created by this GOP. The first was set off by the Reagan/Bush home loan fiasco. The second by selling bad bundles of home loans to banks world wide under the watchful eye of Bush/Cheney. Henry Paulson was turning a blind eye while Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was denying the housing bubble’s existence—not fraud exactly, but deception that kept the bubble going.

This will screw over the very smart and very rich people, and the central banks of Japan, China, and many other countries that hold a large share of their assets in U.S. government bonds. The government of the United States has never defaulted on any bond obligation. The GOP appear to be ready to break this tradition.

This GOP obviously feels the United States doesn’t have to meet its obligation to the working people or its obligations to ultra-wealthy bondholders. The suggestion that the U.S. government might not be willing to repay its debt obligations is remarkable and will completely disrupt global financial markets.

Maddy Griffin 4 years, 5 months ago

Watch. Once the PPACA is fully instated and working, the right will no longer call it "Obamacare".

jafs 4 years, 5 months ago

They may even try to start taking credit for it, like the folks who took credit for the helpful effects of stimulus funding, while simultaneously opposing it publicly.

Cait McKnelly 4 years, 5 months ago

Even the WSJ says that if the GOP takes it all the way to a shutdown that it will sign the death warrant of the Republican party, especially in the House. (One must remember that Kansas isn't representative of the rest of the nation. It's the last bastion of TeaParadise. Even Texas is going down the toilet in that regard.)
Remember, this is America. We don't negotiate with terrorists.

FarleyM 4 years, 5 months ago

Except that WSJ is part of the Corporatism loop. They love the printed money from the Fed. They hate Taxed Enough Already people. Your giddiness is just what Corporatist's want.

Cait McKnelly 4 years, 5 months ago

If that were the case then the Kansas delegation would be against the shutdown. They voted for this, knowing full well what the consequences would be. Sorry, I'm not buying it.

yourworstnightmare 4 years, 5 months ago

Great summary of John Boehner's capitulation to the tea party and his loss of control of the republican party.

I suspect Boehner has not yet plumbed the full depths to which the tea party will drag him, meaning he will get the boot in a primary.

Cait McKnelly 4 years, 5 months ago

If the GOTea is so much against the ACA and truly believe it will "wreck the economy" then why not let it go into effect and PROVE what they believe and let Obama and the Dems take the fall?
The truth is, they are terrified it WILL work; so frightened that they are threatening to do something to this country with far worse consequences. The smell of desperation is an overwhelming stench.
This is the third year in a row that Teapublicans have tried to take this country hostage. How did that work out for them last November?

Liberty275 4 years, 5 months ago

It looks official, government is shut down. My message to the GOP, keep it shut down.

oldbaldguy 4 years, 5 months ago

our government is not parliamentarian. the majority in power governs. here is what I know, we still have troops in contact with the enemy and our representatives cannot pass a budget,. they fight over an act that is the law of the land. why not work on making ACA work, iron out the bugs and inequities in conference like they used to do? see what a shut down does to the economy in the next 2-3 weeks. my investments are just now back to where they were before 2008. i was planning on retiring in 2-3 years. it is time for term limits in the House and the Senate. the people up there are not effective.

weeslicket 4 years, 5 months ago

  1. excellent editorial.

  2. sadly, this is where the gerrymandering of districts leads us. it would be far better if the task of drawing voting districts were taken out of the hands of state legislatures and given to professional adults.

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