John Boehner's 2014 Kneel-Down Play

Understanding the House speaker's latest moves on immigration reform and the debt ceiling

Editorial cartoon on Republicans.
By + More

Depending on the day and the issue in recent weeks, House Speaker John Boehner is either a tea party stooge, unable to stand up to the cranks on his right wing or the target of those same angry conservatives. Either way, watching the top House Republican has been a dizzying experience as he goes round and round on issues like immigration reform and the debt ceiling.

But those killing the House speaker need to view his moves through the prism of November’s elections. With Republicans sure that Obamacare is teeing up a very good year for the right, the GOP’s driving motivation this year is, ultimately, to be unobtrusive: When there’s blood in the water, don’t splash around and distract the sharks.

So take immigration reform. Days after unveiling “standards” for an immigration overhaul, Boehner last week all but declared dead any hopes of enacting legislation this year. Why? Because Republicans don’t trust the Obama administration to enforce any new immigration laws, he said – never mind the howls of outrage the proposal had drawn from the truculent quarters of the tea party over any suggestion there might be a path to citizenship for those currently here illegally (which the GOP proposal would have, after a tortured fashion). New York Sen. Chuck Schumer punctured the ostensible excuse last weekend, suggesting that Congress pass immigration reform now but have it go into effect in 2017, “after President Obama’s term is over.” Boehner dismissed the proposal as impractical because it would give Obama no reason to enforce current immigration laws (never mind that his administration is deporting people at a record pace). Right-wing Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio went even further, telling MSNBC that it’s not just “a strong distrust of” Obama, but “we don’t know who’s going to be president in 2017.” It’s not Obama, in other words; It’s the right. As Gene Sperling, the chairman the White House’s National Economic Council said this week, even where there is a strong GOP leadership desire to cut a deal, “it’s hard for them to stay at the table because they’re not unified enough to stay at the table and finish an agreement.”

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

Then, after appearing to cave to the right on immigration, Boehner spurned them on the debt ceiling. Three years after exacting $2 trillion in cuts in exchange for not deliberately crashing the U.S. and global economy, Boehner threw up a white flag on the debt ceiling this week, allowing a “clean bill” – one unadorned with side policy issues – to pass the House, mostly on the backs of Democrats. The distance the GOP has traveled on this issue can be measured in the fact that the party went from the “Boehner rule,” which required a dollar of spending cuts for every dollar of debt ceiling increase, to a last offer of passing the debt ceiling increase with legislation restoring veterans’ benefits that had been cut as part of December’s budget deal – to increase spending in other words. Conservatives were reportedly not amused at this turn. Boehner, bereft of support, just passed the clean bill, prompting the professionally outraged right to explode. “John Boehner must be replaced as Speaker of the House,” the Senate Conservatives Fund, for example, wrote in an email to supporters.

These gyrations can be seen – not unreasonably – as the vacillations of a leader chasing his followers (though Boehner ironically came out of the government shutdown in a stronger position for having let the party’s crazies learn the lessons of how limited their power is). But they should also be seen through the lens of a party leadership steadfastly trying to stay out of the way of approaching victory. With Obamacare inexorably dragging Democrats down, the thinking goes, Republicans must above all not interfere. “You can see what Democrats are most scared about,” says one GOP former leadership aide. “The debt ceiling’s not [it].”

The aide adds: “These issues are blips compared to when you look forward at the November elections. The lessons that Boehner appreciates as well as anybody given his time there is that it is absolutely possible to screw things up.“ A GOP lobbyist puts it more succinctly: “Republicans are probably three touchdowns up and what do you do when you’re three touchdowns up? You run the ball and kill the clock and that’s what they’re doing.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

So on immigration reform, Boehner knows – as most national party leaders do – that the GOP has to stop its bleeding with Hispanic voters and that passing a reform package will help remove a big obstacle that’s prevented Latinos from hearing the GOP message. But more immediately he knows that trying to move something through would only stoke the party’s civil war, sewing the kind of chaos that could prevent his side from maximally catching an electoral wave.

Ditto the debt ceiling, where the Republicans have managed to extricate themselves from a position that has become politically indefensible – taking a political hostage (the nation’s economy) that they’re not actually willing to kill. “You’re not even going to clap for me for getting this monkey off of our backs?” Boehner reportedly asked a stunned Republican Conference on Tuesday after he told them he would bring a clean debt ceiling increase to the House floor.

It’s true that the pundits scoring minute-by-minute at home have declared that Boehner and the GOP lost this fight and abjectly surrendered, but for most actual voters, raising the debt ceiling is ultimately like an airplane landing: They’re only really interested when there’s a devastating crash.

Yes the tea party has noticed, but they’ll turn out. After all, when they call for Boehner to be replaced, they don’t have Nancy Pelosi in mind.