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The Speaker Is Mute But Not Unintelligible

What John Boehner is thinking.


On the surface, the Club for Growth may be all about the promotion of fiscal conservatism in our nation’s capital. But the group is as much in the provocation business as it is in the tax-cut-enforcing business, which is why, I suspect, its president, the former Republican congressman Chris Chocola, told me this spring that Nancy Pelosi was his “ideal model” of a great speaker of the House. Not John Boehner, about whom I was calling. Pelosi.

“She was willing to risk her position to pass Obamacare,” he explained. “Her ­caucus was against it, the polls were against it, and she risked it. She lost her job in the process, but I suspect she’s okay with that. The fact that she did is a lesson Republicans should learn: Do something you believe in enough to risk your job.”

Whereas Boehner? I asked.

“He’s not going to drive the outcome,” said Chocola. “He’s going to manage the outcome.”

These words seemed especially ­prescient a few weeks later, when Speaker Boehner held his final press conference before the July recess. A bipartisan immigration bill was on the verge of passing the Senate later that afternoon. In an alternate universe, one could imagine Boehner bringing that Senate bill to the House floor, even though it allowed a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, which the majority of his conference doesn’t support. He’s a conservative, certainly, but also an institutionalist, an old-school politician who likes to do deals; as his months-long effort to concoct a “grand bargain” with Obama on the budget showed, he has an interest, at 63, in leaving a legacy of bipartisan accomplishments behind him. Most Democrats discern in him a rational streak, though they pity him for it. (“John Boehner is a reasonable man,” Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, told me this spring, “and that probably damns him.”)

More to the point, there’s a compelling Establishment reason for Boehner to pass an immigration-reform bill: It has become a Washington truism that the party must expand its appeal to Latino and minority voters if it wants to remain viable in the future. The Republican National Committee favors comprehensive immigration reform; George W. Bush has poked his head out of retirement to support it, and so does The Wall Street Journal editorial board. Without it, the Republican senator Lindsey Graham recently ventured on Meet the Press, “we’re in a demographic death spiral as a party.”

The trouble is that there is one group that emphatically doesn’t want immigration reform, at least in its current Senate iteration: a key, very conservative cohort of the House Republicans, which Boehner just happens to lead. Which means his speakership, of late, has become a case study in minefield walking, forcing him to balance one survival instinct against another. If he doesn’t make an attempt at a serious bill, he’ll have almost nothing to show for his leadership, suffering yet another humiliating defeat in a two-plus-year string of humiliating defeats. But if he tries to forge a deal with the Democrats and let the bill come to the floor (where it will need Democratic support to pass), he’ll face a revolt from his own rather large backbench—and he already survived one this winter, when twelve Republicans tried to oust him in a coup.

And so, faced with choosing between passing historic legislation and saving his own hide, John Boehner has spent most of this summer punting.

“Are there any circumstances under which you, personally, could support a pathway to citizenship for people who are here illegally?” asked one reporter at the late-June press conference.

“My job,” the speaker blandly replied, “is to facilitate a discussion between both parties in terms of how we’re going to deal with this issue.”

I threw up my own hand and asked Boehner whether he thought, at the very least, that creating a pathway to citizenship might be in the best future interest of the Republican Party.

“You all have been trying to do this all year, in terms of getting me to take specific positions on immigration reform,” he answered with a combination of amusement and irritation.

Yet on other issues, another reporter pointed out, Boehner hasn’t been shy about expressing an opinion. Why was he being so shy here?

“Because we are talking about a very, very contentious issue and a difficult issue,” said Boehner. “Me taking a ­position one way or another ­somewhere—it’s just going to slow the process down and make it more difficult. I’ve got a ­difficult enough job as it is. I don’t need to make it harder.”

Such were the convictions of the speaker of the House on the pressing topic of immigration: He had no convictions, or at least none that mattered. And with that, Boehner wished everyone a happy Fourth of July and left the podium.


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