Perhaps the “barn burners” of the Republican House caucus are proud of themselves for getting rid of John Boehner, although in doing so they have guaranteed the failure of their most immediate goal, which was to either cut off funds for Planned Parenthood or shut down the government.
Personally, I believe (and hope) their no-compromise mentality and tactics are more likely to strengthen the forces of compromise.
Boehner is notoriously boring in interviews, but he did say a couple of interesting things Sunday on “Face the Nation” (transcript here) that may suggest where this contest is heading.
For one, he freely acknowledged that he would rely on Democratic votes to get the last few things accomplished that he had in mind for his last month as House speaker. He specified that he resigned, in part, to spare his own loyalists the political risk they would take by standing by him.
The “barn burner” metaphor, in case it is unfamiliar to you, refers literally to a farmer who will burn down his own barn in order to get rid of a rat infestation. It arose during the 1830s, ’40s and ’50s to refer to elements who wanted to destroy all banks and corporations whom they saw as the source of evil, and to those who favored similar tactics to get rid of slavery.
Today’s barn burners favor a radical reduction in the size and reach of government, wedded to various right-wing social policies on issues such as abortion or gay marriage. They lack the political power to accomplish their goals through ordinary political means and seek instead to multiply their power by seeking to shut down the government or refuse to raise the debt ceiling, which would damage the government’s credit rating.
Boehner, free from fear of being dumped but still holding the gavel for one more month, has made clear that he will not participate in the shutdown scenario and that a new compromise will keep the government open at least until December. Of course, December is not that far away, and the barn burners may be satisfied to strike the match again then and keep striking it until they accomplish their radical agenda. That’s how the barn-burning mentality operates.
Boehner and his likely replacement Kevin McCarthy agree with the barn burners that government should be smaller, taxes lower, abortion rare and gay marriage illegal. But they disagree on burning down the barn to advance these goals.
The barn burners had decided that Boehner had to go (and that by getting rid of him, they would advance their agenda). They were organizing a vote to embarrass him. Their plan was to call for a “motion to vacate the chair,” and to demonstrate that Boehner’s leadership did not have the support of a majority of the House. Technically, that was probably true in the sense that a majority the House are either Democrats (188 members) or barn burners (maybe 30 or 40, maybe more). But Boehner still had the support of a majority of Republicans and, if necessary, the Democrats would have voted for Boehner rather than leave the House unable to function.
Of course, a Republican speaker who is beholden to Democrats for his survival should not be a step toward the barn burners’ goals, at least in the short term. But once you are committed to a barn-burning mentality, that ceases to be much of a consideration.
Barn burners force Boehner to rely on Democrats
In his Friday morning press conference, Boehner said that he was not worried about surviving the vote on his leadership, although he didn’t specify whether he thought he would get the necessary 218 votes just from Republicans. On Sunday morning on “Face the Nation,” he made clear that he might have had to rely on Democratic votes and that he will also need Democratic allies to keep the government open. He was asked by moderator John Dickerson whether, to do any of the things he wanted to do in the last months, he will require votes from Democrats.
DICKERSON: The continuing resolution, will that require Democratic votes to pass?
BOEHNER: I’m sure it will. But I expect my Democrat colleagues want to keep the government open as much as I do.
Likewise, he specified that he would have survived the leadership challenge with Democratic support:
BOEHNER: Listen, winning that vote was never an issue. I was going to get the overwhelming numbers of — I would have gotten 400 votes probably. But why do I want to make my members, Republican members, walk the plank? Because they’re going to get criticized at home by some who think that we ought to be more aggressive.
Here he is acknowledging that many of his own supporters come from districts where they are under barn-burner pressure to engage in extreme tactics, and that he wanted to spare them votes that would be used against them by barn-burner primary challengers. (Recall that Boehner’s own heir apparent, Eric Cantor, was defeated in a Republican primary in his Virginia district by a Tea Party-supported challenger.)
Still on “Face the Nation,” Boehner built up his argument that the barn burners are misleading their followers by promising results they cannot achieve, which led to him labeling them as “false prophets.”
BOEHNER: Listen, we have accomplished a lot over the four-and-a-half years that I was speaker, and whether it was the largest deficit reduction deal in the history of the country, saving $2.1 trillion, protecting 99 percent of the American people from an increase in our taxes, or the first major entitlement reforms in 20 years, all done over last four-and-a-half years with a Democrat president, and all voted against by my most conservative members because it wasn’t good enough.
Really? This is the part that I really don’t understand. Our founders gave us a system of government, a majority in the House, you need 60 votes in the Senate. If the House and Senate can agree, the president gets to decide. And our founders didn’t want some parliamentary system where, if you won the majority, you got to do whatever you wanted. They wanted this long, slow process.
And so change comes slowly, and obviously too slowly for some…
DICKERSON: Well, are they unrealistic about what can be done in government? That’s the dysfunction.
BOEHNER: Absolutely they’re unrealistic. The Bible says, beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done. I mean, this whole idea that we were going to shut down the government to get rid of Obamacare in 2013, this plan never had chance.
But over the course of the August recess in 2013, and the course of September, lot of my Republican colleagues who knew it was a fool’s errand really they were getting all this pressure from home to do this. And so we have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen.
Boehner also made clear on “Face the Nation” that he has ideas — in addition to fending off the immediate threat of a government shutdown — for things he can get done before he leaves, all of which, he implied, will require Democratic votes and perhaps White House and Senate support (this is the reference to “cooperation from some around town”) all of which will anger the barn burners:
DICKERSON: And what about the rest of the business you want to get done before October 30? What is on the to-do list?
BOEHNER: Well, we have got — I have got another 30 days to be speaker. And I’m going to make the same decisions the same way I have over the last four-and-a-half years to make sure that we’re passing conservative legislation that is good for the country.
I expect that might have a little more cooperation from some around town to try to get as much finished as possible. I don’t want to leave my successor a dirty barn. I want to clean the barn up a little bit before the next person gets there.
I interpret this as more evidence that Boehner will spend his last month working out arrangements with like-minded Republicans and Democrats, and probably including President Obama, to clear away some of the tempting targets that the barn burners might otherwise use as kindling.
I can’t say, but it is possible to believe that this era of bipartisan cooperation will establish a template for getting things done in an era of divided government. It would be fascinating to know what kind of advice Boehner imparts to his protege and likely successor Kevin McCarthy if/when he hands over the gavel.