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Republican Tantrums Show Boehner's Strength

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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If you want to learn more about why elections for speaker of the House work the way they do, I recommend today’s Monkey Cage post by Jeffery A. Jenkins and Charles Stewart III.

But I disagree with those who treat the “revolt” against John Boehner as similar to the Progressives' dissent of the 1920s.

Jenkins and Stewart describe how the Progressive revolt violated the norm that once the party caucus decides on someone, everyone in the caucus must support the candidate in the House vote. In 1923, the Progressives had the votes to extract serious concessions from the mainstream Republican Party, and they took advantage of it. Two years later, they lost their leverage after the regular Republicans had a good election, and were smacked down.

That’s different from what happened in 2013 and this week. The Progressives had important disagreements with regular Republicans on public policy. The Tea Party dissenters really don’t. The Progressives had a list of concrete demands. The Louie Gohmert radicals didn’t.

The votes against Boehner were symbolic claims of Tea Party kinship more than a real attempt to oust him. One probable indicator? The eventual group of dissenting votes increased after it turned out that Boehner was safer than expected because a delegation of Democrats missed the House vote to attend Mario Cuomo’s funeral.

What’s portrayed as a Boehner weakness (all those dissenting votes!) can just as easily be seen as his strength in a difficult situation. The problem for most House Republicans is that they face being labeled as squishes or Republicans in Name Only by the Tea Partyers and then run the risk of challenges in their primaries.  The remedy, for many of them, is the chance to cast symbolic votes to prove they are True Conservatives (since the real remedy -- passing conservative legislation -- is unavailable with a Democrat in the White House, especially since any compromise to achieve their goals would only be another sign of disloyalty to The Cause).

As speaker, Boehner has enabled those symbolic votes. He didn’t come down hard on the dissenters in 2013, and (outside of the Rules Committee removals) he probably won't this time either, because he may not see them as a threat. Why not let them cast their dissenting votes, whether in the contest for speaker or in various legislative situations? Remember, Boehner was renominated by the full Republican conference back in November with no reported dissent at all.

Most House Republicans are happy with their leader – as long as they are allowed to deny being happy with him when it serves their interests.

  1. With fewer Democrats present, the effective Republican majority was even larger, allowing more Republicans to vote for alternative candidates without endangering Boehner’s chances. Granted, I can’t prove that the difference between pre-vote estimates and the eventual list of dissenters was caused by the Cuomo funeral; it’s possible some  “rebels” just didn’t announce their intentions in advance.  

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net