Is it is better to be feared than loved?

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Machiavelli's Guide for House Republicans

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.
Read More.
a | A

Mitch McConnell blinked, and the Senate is moving to pass a Homeland Security funding bill without the anti-immigration riders the House added.

But John Boehner is still pretending the House is going ahead with its challenge to Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. It's a good moment to check in on the aims of the various groups of House Republicans. 

The speaker. From the start, Boehner has wanted to avoid a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security, while ducking the blame for "folding." So far, so good. He can take credit for the original “tough” House bill, and tell the Tea Partyers in his conference, "Gosh, I tried to figure out how to hold out, but the Senate has betrayed us and we can't fight on."

But he still has to back down and pass the "clean" Senate bill by the deadline this weekend (or soon after that). His incentive now is to wait long enough (a day? three days?) to distinguish himself from the (supposed) Republicans In Name Only and other squishes in the Senate, but not so long that his eventual surrender makes him the stand-alone story.

Conservatives worried about their own re-election -- regardless of their position on immigration -- don't want a shutdown on their hands and want this fight to end as soon as possible. True, voters aren’t going to remember a two-week shutdown 20 months from now. But if it convinces some potentially strong Democratic candidates that they have a good shot in 2016, it could cost some Republican incumbents their jobs.

Even with all the House Democrats voting in favor of the clean Senate version of the bill, it isn't clear there are enough of these House Republicans to supply a majority to pass it. This puts the spotlight on others in their conference. 

Conservatives who are worried about primaries also want this fight to go away quickly, so they want Boehner to produce a clean bill that passes. But they want to oppose the bill publicly. To support the sellout legislation would invite a primary challenge. Unfortunately for them, Boehner will need some of their votes to pass the bill -- and he’ll want as many as he can get to show he isn't personally undermining the Republican position.

The radicals may be in the most complicated position. On one hand, their goal at all times is to portray Boehner as a squish and distinguish themselves from him and other conservative pragmatists. On the other hand, if Boehner gets the same punishment as McConnell does, even after winning the game of chicken against the Senate majority leader, he might have incentive the next time to work with McConnell against the radicals. Hurting Boehner now may reduce their chances to divide and conquer in the future.

In the end, all these groups know that a bill without the anti-immigration riders is going to win out. The posturing was there from the start, and will continue to the end.

  1. The radicals don’t differ with mainstream conservatives on ideology or policy, so they have to find procedural or tactical differences. Seen in that light, threatening to shut down Homeland Security when they didn’t have the leverage to force Democrats to yield on immigration was clever because they picked a fight they were certain to lose. Since most conservatives wanted to avoid this suicidal strategy to begin with, and since Republican leaders and many rank-and-file members of Congress were sure to surrender, it would demonstrate that the radicals -- Louie Gohmert, Steve King and others you haven't yet heard of -- were the True Conservatives after all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at