The Speaker Is Mute But Not Unintelligible

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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.

John Boehner in 1997, a lieutenant in the Gingrich revolution. Photo: Scott J. Ferrell/Getty Images

This spring, I asked Steve LaTourette, a recently retired House Republican, also from Ohio, what he thought John Boehner might still enjoy about his job. There was a long silence. “I’d be interested to know his answer,” he finally said, ­“because I can’t figure out anything he’d still enjoy. I’d be depressed. I’d be ripping my hair out. I’m surprised he’s not bald.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that Boehner is one of the most beleaguered powerful people in Washington. From almost the beginning of his tenure, he has been under the implicit or explicit threat of a coup. But right now, with the recent passage of the Senate immigration-reform bill, his dilemma—and the central riddle of his speakership—has never been so sharply defined: What is Boehner looking for in this job? Is it only to survive? To serve his party? To serve his ideals? To simply avoid humiliation? Or to enact a plan no one else appears to be aware of? What does John Boehner want?

Last Wednesday, following a closed-door session with GOP House members, the signals from Boehner on this issue were hardly encouraging to Democrats: When he emerged, he and his fellow leaders issued a statement repeating that they would not take up the Senate bill, which they considered weak on border security and overly ambitious in reach, and he repeated the same thing at his weekly press conference the next morning. But even then—even as Boehner was excoriating the Senate bill—he wouldn’t quite rule out the possibility of bringing a smaller bill to the House floor that allowed for a pathway to citizenship, which for Democrats is key, and he repeated the message he’d communicated even more emphatically to members behind closed doors: The House had to do something.

Even as he seemed to be killing the bill, in other words, he was acknowledging the importance of keeping it alive.

For months, the man has been a regular hologram. Stand in this corner of the room, you see someone who wants to strike a deal; stand in another, you see someone who doesn’t. He’s thus far appeared in all forms to all people, at once supportive of both the Hispanic caucus and his right-most flank. On the day the bill passed the Senate, I asked Luis Gutiérrez, the key Democrat in the House’s bipartisan immigration coalition, whether he thought Boehner would like to pass an immigration bill palatable to Democrats, and he essentially said yes (“I think he’s for the complete package”); the same day, I asked Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who came out against the speaker in the January coup, and he seemed convinced Boehner wouldn’t dare cross his rank-and-file members—they’ve finally got the speaker’s ear, he says, and the bill isn’t urgent: “Immigration reform doesn’t have to pass,” he said. “It’s not the debt ceiling.”

And when I asked Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, what he thought Boehner wanted, he said it was probably to pass some form of amnesty … but it’d be insanely hard to do: “I think John Boehner the legislator, at a time when Republicans and Democrats could actually work together, would be at the table with Republicans and Democrats, trying to figure out what’s the best way for the path to citizenship,” he said. “But he’s in an untenable position.”

This much is clear: Everyone on the Hill has become a Boehnerologist, trying to divine what he thinks and what, by extension, he’s going to do. At one point during the press conference two weeks ago, Boehner declared, with evident exasperation, “You’re reading things into what I’m saying,” to which the reporter with whom he was chatting replied, to much laughter, “Right.”

If Boehner were clearer about his own beliefs, there’d be less reason for speculation, of course. This spring, he spoke enthusiastically about the House bipartisan group’s plan, calling it “a pretty responsible solution”—and according to Gutiérrez, that solution included a pathway to citizenship. That’s reason enough to think this is where his heart truly is (or at least the rough neighborhood). But then, as it became clear that his more radical members would never stand for such a thing, Boehner, no doubt sensing that his job was again at stake, started to show more skepticism as the Senate’s immigration efforts coalesced and he issued a statement shortly before Memorial Day that said the House would do its own bill. Yet some members remained unconvinced, so Boehner reassured them that he wouldn’t bring an immigration bill to the House floor unless most of his conference approved of it, all while telling the press that he was aiming for a bill that would get a majority of both parties’ support.

Which has left his most hard-line members confused, and still suspicious. In late June, Steve King, the Iowa Republican whose views on immigration are among the most radical in his party, told me that a “sizable percentage” of the GOP conference still wasn’t sure Boehner meant it when he said he’d keep the bill off the floor if it didn’t garner the majority of his party’s support.

Right, I said. But hadn’t Boehner just made this very promise that morning in a closed-door meeting with the entire GOP conference? “That’s my understanding,” he replied. “I wish I had written it down.”

Ultimately, there are really just three possibilities about what’s been going on in Boehner’s mind: First, that he secretly wants a deal with Democrats on immigration but is playing a long game, hoping to bring enough Republican members onboard to make them feel like they’ve had some say in the process; second, that he’s a nihilist who cares more about survival than policy and will therefore choose the path of least resistance (in this version, the speakership, to Boehner, is more of a lifestyle than a calling); and third, that he has no plan and is improvising as he goes.

It’s likely all three possibilities are at play at once. Almost everyone in politics balances high-minded ideals with a more primal desire to hang onto his or her job. In a typical political leader, this dilemma would be playing out in a way the public understands. But Boehner is not typical, even though he looks the part. He’s not a raging narcissist, he’s not a crusading ideologue, he’s not a visionary or a camera hog or a policy nerd. He’s not a saint, either. His drives and desires are cryptic. As his friend and fellow Ohio representative Pat Tiberi likes to point out, he’s a paradox, someone who very much wanted the speakership and then stripped himself of all the tools that most speakers use to lead. Like earmarks, most famously—money set aside for pet projects in individual districts, which is always good for bribing members. Boehner has also ceded far more control to his committee chairmen than those preceding him.

Which means the speaker is, to some degree, winging it. The way he describes this process is “letting the House work its will.” But what it feels like, really, is that he’s biding his time, letting the clock run out, and defining winning by still standing at the end.

Getting his conference under control seems out of the question. His majority, which he owes to the tea-party wave of 2010, has been unusually hostile to old-school concepts like compromise. It’s almost as if Boehner has two different parties to run: conservatives and an ultranationalist, socially conservative, hard-line Le Pen fringe. (In fact, Sarah Palin recently threatened to break from the GOP and start a Freedom Party of her own.) In the past twelve months, Boehner hasn’t been able to drum up enough votes out of his conference to support his own plan to avert the fiscal cliff, nor was he able to get the majority of their support to pass Hurricane Sandy Relief or the Violence Against Women Act.

Mike Simpson, a subcommittee chairman on Appropriations and an ally of the speaker’s, told me that he tried to explain to a few newer members that by refusing to compromise, they were driving their leadership into the arms of the Democrats. “I said to them, ‘Where do you think I go to get 218 votes, if I can’t go to you?’ ” he said. But his words landed on uncomprehending ears. “They looked at me and said, ‘Well, I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t know if I agree with you.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care if you agree with me! This is just the way it is.’ ”

Such intransigence invites the question of whether anyone could manage the conference better. Even Steve King conceded he wasn’t sure: “It’s a hard job. I don’t know.” A number of Boehner’s allies would argue that the days of GOP tough-guy speakers are long gone. “You couldn’t be a speaker who’s a kneecapper,” says Pat Tiberi. “We have too many members who run against power. Who run against the Establishment.”

To control his unruly right flank, Boehner has lately devised a new strategy: He now allows every harebrained idea this motley, fractious conference has to be aired and, in many cases, to come to the floor. The House has become the new Senate. In fact, the Senate has become the more productive body of the two chambers, which is remarkable given that its complex rules generally conspire against passing so much as a saltshaker. “It’s the standing joke: The Senate is the old folks’ home where not much happens,” said Steve LaTourette when we spoke this spring. “But they produced a highway bill. They produced a farm bill.”

And sure enough, this June, Boehner’s conference torpedoed a farm bill too. Boehner blamed the Democrats. But nobody was buying it. (Though last Thursday, the House passed a pared-down, far more partisan bill.)

At one of his weekly press briefings in the spring, Boehner made a telling slip: He said there were 70 new members in the House GOP. The context was the repeal of Obamacare—the House was voting on it for the 37th time, and when asked why, the speaker explained that these new members hadn’t yet had a chance to do so. The problem was, Boehner’s conference didn’t, at that moment, have 70 new members. It had 35. All public officials misspeak, but what I couldn’t help wondering was whether Boehner misspoke because he felt like he had 70 new upstarts to mind.

The irony is Boehner was once one of those upstarts himself. The 1994 Gingrich revolution is what made his career take off, just as the 2010 tea-party rebellion made Michele Bachmann’s career take off, and everyone else’s who today causes Boehner headaches. Back in 1994, ­seasoned Republicans like Bob Dole—himself once a hothead in his political youth—could not get over how radicalized Boehner’s young generation had become.

Today, Boehner is Bob Dole: a ­befuddled party leader who can’t believe all these crazy kids in his midst, these shameless ideologues who have a total-victory policy and can’t be content with getting 90 percent of the loaf (which was Dole’s famous standard for any worthy piece of legislation). His louche South Beach look has morphed into a gentleman’s tan, just like Dole’s.

And, like Dole, there’s something fundamentally lonely and melancholic about Boehner. It’s an impression one gets not just because he has “very effective tear ducts,” as his friend the Oregon representative Greg Walden puts it. He spent 200 days on the road last year. He lives alone in a basement apartment down the street from a popular Capitol gym. The tabloid press recently had a field day when his oldest daughter, Lindsay, married Dominic Lakhan, a Jamaican-born construction worker with a modest arrest record (marijuana possession), but what’s more interesting is that Boehner’s family never lived with him in Washington, and today neither of his daughters shares his politics. “I think it was a typical, father’s-gone-all-the-time-and-we’re-gonna-rebel type of thing,” explains his childhood friend Jerry Vanden Eynden. The speaker faces rebellions on all fronts.

Roughly once a month, Boehner’s closest allies get together with the speaker over sandwiches. Team Boehner, they call themselves. “Our job, really, is to tell John what we’re hearing, what people won’t say to him directly,” says Simpson. He adds that the opposite is also true, and just as critical: “So that he can get messages out by telling us what’s going on, and what his thinking is.”

I tell Simpson it seems a little strange that Boehner needs his own designated corps to be his eyes and ears—and to ­personally broadcast his own logic. Doesn’t he know what’s going on? And can’t he make his views plain?

According to Simpson, no: “As you become speaker, you become more and more isolated.” Speakers don’t sit on congressional committees, which means they can’t catch up on gossip from the rank and file; they’re caught in an endless series of meetings of their own. “So he really doesn’t have that interaction with individual members.” Which makes sense, so far as it goes. But few people would say that Nancy Pelosi lived in isolation from her members when she was speaker. The distance between a leader and his or her caucus is as much a function of style as anything else.

And that’s where Boehner runs into trouble. He doesn’t lead through inspiration and hardball, as Pelosi does, or ideology and intimidation, like Gingrich did. When Boehner decided to run for public office, it wasn’t because he had a singular ideological vision, or a gift for leadership and oratory, or a drive to change the world. It was because he, as a small businessman in Ohio, did not like the look of his tax bill. (In 1978, he told the Wall Street Journal, his income topped $74,000 per year, which nudged him into a considerably higher tax bracket.)

“I’d never have bet any money that he’d be the future speaker of the House,” says Joe Koziura, a Democrat who served with Boehner in the Ohio State Legislature in the late eighties. “To me, he had a pretty boring persona,” agrees Bob Hagan, a current Democratic state legislator who also served with Boehner. “Granted, he was in the minority, so there wasn’t much of a chance to be colorful. But the only color he had was tan.” Even his friends were stunned, in 1990, when he ran in the congressional primary to go to Washington. “None of us could believe he would leave it all to go to Congress,” says Vanden Eynden, who’s known Boehner since grade school. “He was making a lot of money. Why would you want to do that?”

So why did he? I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I still ask him that. Maybe he had a midlife crisis. He was 40.”

You can spend forever asking Boehner’s friends what his favorite movies are, and you won’t find one; he doesn’t really watch them. Nor does he watch TV, other than news, sports, and the Weather Channel. When the House GOP conference elected Boehner to be their leader in 2006, they chose him, in large part, because he was benign—easygoing, ­likable, a hail-fellow-well-met. (It also helped that he was a prodigious fund-raiser.) At that point in time, the ethics travails of the former majority leader, Tom DeLay, who was indicted in 2005, had exhausted House Republicans. Of all the candidates to succeed him, Boehner seemed the least inclined to his bare-knuckled style.

“I’ve never known John not to be a gentleman,” says Simpson. “In fact, a few of us have been on his case about his not meting out some punishment.”

Which is a more charitable way of saying (as others do) that Boehner is soft. All of Boehner’s allies try to encourage him to be tougher on party dissidents. ­LaTourette told me a story about sitting on the ­steering committee and listening to members, reasonable members, try to get Boehner to punish some of the more unreasonable characters for their disloyalty. Boehner declined. “And there are two ways to view that,” says LaTourette. “You could say that he’s nice—he’s not punishing them for voting their conscience. But the other way, which I think is haunting him now, is that it’s taken as a sign of weakness.”

Well, I say, Boehner did eventually strip four difficult members of various committee seats last year. “Too late,” says ­LaTourette. “If you have a rebellion and you don’t nip it in the bud in the beginning, it grows.” He mentions some of their worst acts of insubordination—failing to support Boehner’s “Plan B” fiscal bill, plotting a coup, sowing independent ­mischief in the press. “In the days of Newt—that person, we wouldn’t even be finding his body today.”

When Gingrich was speaker, he had gangs of acolytes and sycophants hanging off him, at least in the early days. Boehner, on the other hand, comes out quietly to the House floor and lingers in the back row among his closest friends. There’s no penumbra of urgency surrounding him, nothing that makes his aides spring to attention when he appears. After hours, it’s not uncommon to find him at the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill (the “Capitol Hill Club,” for short), having a glass of Merlot and kibitzing with members. On staff and member birthdays, he treats them to his famous birthday song, sung to the tune of “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay”: “This is your birthday song, it doesn’t last too long …” He razzes members for their bad taste in ties, their lousy golf game, their weight, their tardiness, their hair getting a quarter-inch too shaggy.

But nobody mistakes Boehner for an extrovert. “As a person, he’s very likable,” says the North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, one of the four members who were stripped of their committee seats. “But when Newt was speaker of the House, he’d say to members—not just me—‘What are you working on?’ Whether he meant it or not, he asked. I don’t see the same outreach from the speaker.” Or direct confrontation. After he’d stripped those four members of their committee seats, he never notified them directly, according to Jones. “We found out on the Internet,” says Jones.

Has he talked to the speaker since?

“Just to say hello.”

Of course, there’s another powerful leader in Washington who’s inconveniently introverted and allergic to conflict. His name is Barack Obama.

“When both Bush and Clinton were in office, their people stopped by and talked to us all the time,” Mike Simpson told me, referring to their representatives from the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. “And now,” Simpson said, “I couldn’t tell you who my Leg Affairs person is.”

Whenever things bog down in ­Washington, people divide into two camps: those who believe gridlock is a simple function of political math—that the ­incentives of both parties are impossible to align—and those who believe that shrewder, more muscular ­leadership could overcome these differences. But one of the reasons we’re still having this debate is that both parties are represented by men who have basically given up cajoling House Republicans. There’s really no way to know.

Here’s what’s so puzzling: When Boehner was still building his business career in Ohio, says Vanden Eynden, he was well known for being a terrific salesman. “You got paid on what you sold,” he says, “and he had enough confidence to say, ‘I can do that.’ He was very confident in his product.” Yet those very skills have deserted him in Washington. He’s a salesman who hasn’t made a sale, a speaker who’s more comfortable staying mute.

Maybe the most important clue to the puzzle of John Boehner is staring us in the face: John Boehner is speaker of the House. Still. Despite everything. It is very easy to judge his tenure as weak and vulnerable, but another interpretation is that it is astonishingly durable, given the circumstances. It’s doubtful that most people, faced with the dire internal politics of Boehner’s job, would hang on as long as he has.

On the Hill, people like to compare Boehner to Mad Men’s Don Draper. The point is that he’s of another era, fond of cigarettes and pretty women and cocktails (or Merlot, in the speaker’s case) yet in some ways forever a fifties square. As a businessman, Boehner was even in plastics, the very prospect of which made Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate do a face-plant in the family pool. Boehner was roughly the same age as Hoffman’s character in 1967. Boehner, though, didn’t have the same luxury of contempt. His parents didn’t have a pool and couldn’t pay for college.

The real reason that Boehner is so reminiscent of Don Draper has little to do with booze and cigarettes. It’s that he’s a creature of his own invention—and, like Don, carries both vestiges of where he came from and an unabashed taste for the stuff he’s earned. In Washington, Boehner may seem like an improbable speaker—too laid-back for the job, devoid of the hungry striver’s metabolism one finds in so many politicians. (“Born with extra glands,” as Jack Valenti once said of LBJ.) But Boehner does have it, if you look at where he started and where he is now. He grew up the second of twelve children, in Reading, Ohio, in a house with just two bedrooms and one bathroom. His dad owned a bar, Andy’s Café, and John, like most of the kids, wound up working there in some way or another until he left the house.

Most of Boehner’s siblings remain clustered around Reading. Boehner was one of just two to get a four-year-college degree, much less leave the state. “John had more ambition than the rest of us,” says Stephen, the third Boehner, born one year after John. “If he wanted a nicer car, he went out and got a nicer car.” The speaker’s ambition showed up mostly outside the classroom. He was willing to take a lot of extra jobs to upgrade his life—as a roofer, a janitor, a detailer of cars. He always dressed nicely. “Always, John wanted to look good,” says Vanden Eynden. “I don’t think he even wore blue jeans much. He wore cologne.”

Boehner may sometimes appear weak and passive. But beneath that passive exterior, he, like many self-created people, is exerting a great deal of unseen energy trying to preserve himself. From nearly the moment Boehner arrived in Congress in 1991, it was clear that he wanted to be speaker, probably for the same reasons he wanted a nicer car and better clothes: Up was the place to go, his natural trajectory. In 1994, he was voted chairman of the House Republican conference, and quickly became known as one of Gingrich’s craftiest lieutenants, regarded almost as warily as Eric Cantor is now. When Newt was forced out in 1998, Boehner was the only one in leadership to be taken down with him—that’s how treacherous he was considered—and out of leadership he stayed until 2006, when he returned as majority leader.

This experience makes Boehner a rare breed in Washington, one of the few politicians who know what it is to lose power but remain on the job. He had to find a means to occupy himself and save face—which by all accounts he did, becoming chairman of the House’s education committee and passing No Child Left Behind with Ted Kennedy, but the experience clearly stung. And the question is: Could Boehner bear losing his leadership position again?

It seems unlikely. The speaker’s golfing and dining with lobbyists may be the stuff of cliché, but they’re also his life; this is what he does, who he is, what his existence has become. Unlike Dole (who was educated on the G.I. bill), he didn’t enter government with much sympathy for it, and he’s not the party’s heir apparent to the presidency. There’s nothing left to reach for. So this is the gripping drama taking place in Washington this summer: a slow-motion tragedy of a man forsaking everything for a lousy job, a job that no sane outsider would ever want, but that he can’t afford to lose.

The Speaker Is Mute But Not Unintelligible