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Long story very short: the president will almost always beat the speaker. To win the presidency, the Right needs not barn-burners but fire discipline. To understand the Boehner fiasco — and for conservatives, it has been a fiasco of our own making — we need to understand a bit of history. We need some perspective, and it would help to start with the first modern speaker, Tip O’Neill.
Tip O’Neill reinvented the House of Representatives. Previous Speakers, like Sam Rayburn, had been effective because they were able to put together large bipartisan coalitions to pass bills. But O’Neill put a partisan stamp on the House: he weakened the committee chairs and did his best to pass bills on party lines. O’Neill’s revolution wasn’t widely understood at the time, however, because O’Neill usually lost legislative battles to President Reagan. Why? Because when the president and speaker fight, the president nearly always wins. The president speaks with one voice, while the speaker frequently gets drowned out by the loudest and dumbest members of his caucus. National Review was right to note that Tip O’Neill shut down the government, but Stiles forgot to mention that O’Neill mostly lost those battles to Reagan.
Newt Gingrich continued the trend that O’Neill started. Gingrich liked to compare himself to British Prime Ministers, who very nearly elected dictators. But when Gingrich tried shutting down the government, the blowback forced him to yield to President Clinton. In Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Gingrich made a rueful admission:
“I am speaking of the power of the veto. Even if you pass something through both the House and the Senate, there is that presidential pen. How could we have forgotten that?”
Hold that thought; we’ll come back to it.
Nancy Pelosi, however, learned from the past. She faced tremendous pressure from the Left to defund the Iraq War and — had she followed the Hastert Rule of only allowing the full House to vote on bills that a majority of the majority party supported — she might well have succeeded. But, knowing that defunding a war would be horribly unpopular and run into Bush’s veto pen, she demonstrated fire discipline against her own party and let Republicans have a temporary victory. Meanwhile, she prepared the groundwork for a Democratic president who could give her the cover she needed to pass big, left-wing bills. She got it with Obama, and her place in history as a powerful speaker is now assured.
John Boehner is now leaving. The tragedy for Boehner is that he was around for the Gingrich years and remembers getting clobbered. In contrast, exactly none of the Freedom Caucus was around for the nineties debacle and — not having learned from Gingrich — they seem hellbent on learning the veto lesson the hard way. Five Thirty-Eight crunched the numbers, and the earliest any of them were elected was in 2002 (Reps. Scott Garrett and Trent Franks). Boehner clearly remembers the power of the veto pen, but the Freedom Caucus has no fire discipline: they want a conservative agenda now and will burn down the barn to rid it of rats.
Given the limitations of not controlling the presidency, Boehner did a solid job. He passed Trade Promotion Authority and did something that hasn’t happened since Eisenhower was president: he actually cut federal spending. The sequester worked. These aren’t just modest accomplishments in the face of the most left-wing president since Johnson; they’re the sort of thing that, to my knowledge, nobody predicted.
Those criticizing Boehner for not pushing a conservative enough agenda are like the man who criticizes a Usain Bolt for not being as fast as Secretariat. Boehner wasn’t dealt a strong hand of cards, but he played them as well as anybody humanly could.
The smartest conservatives — Paul Ryan, Jeb Hensarling, Trey Gowdy — have all ruled out runs for Speaker because they know that many of the base’s demands are impossible so long as Obama is president. Defunding Planned Parenthood, for example, isn’t going to happen in this congress. It will only happen with a Republican president, and for that, we need fire discipline in the House.
Boehner had it. Will his successor?