SHUTDOWN OCTOBER 1, 2013
It's safe to say that John Boehner hasn't been having a good day. Last March, Noam Scheiber explained how the majority leader's mind works—and came to a surprising defense of the man who has saved the Republican Party from complete self-destruction, even if he can't prevent a government shutdown.
I have a confession to make: I'm a big fan of John Boehner. One of his very few, it turns out. The White House complains that Boehner's near-total ignorance of policy makes him impossible to negotiate with, and that it's pointless to deal with him anyway, since he exerts zero control over his members. Pundits deride him as strategically inept, constantly backing himself into corners from which there's no obvious escape. Even conservatives have lost their patience at times: Washington Examiner columnist Byron York recently called Boehner's message on sequestration—the $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that kicked in Friday—"astonishingly bad."
To which I say: Yes! Boehner is goofy, poorly informed, and frequently incoherent. He often sows confusion among the very people he's supposed to be leading. But despite this—or perhaps because of it—he has been remarkably effective at saving the Republican Party from complete self-destruction. Through heroic improvisation, he's avoided the global economic apocalypse House Republicans are so intent on provoking.
Under the circumstances, Boehner has, in fact, been a raging success. I hesitate to call him "sophisticated" because that would imply a level of self-awareness and reflection I'm not sure he's capable of. But the man's instincts are damn-near impeccable.
Here is the soul-crushing reality that Boehner wakes up to every morning, before he lights up a Camel 99 and knots his power tie: The Democratic Party is much more popular than the GOP, and Barack Obama has far higher approval ratings than Republican leaders in Washington. When it comes to the budget—the key battleground in the partisan skirmishing of the last two years—the American people overwhelmingly favor Obama's approach (paring the deficit through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts) over the Republicans' (cutting spending only). And the president's bully pulpit gives him a virtually limitless ability to highlight the programs that Republican cuts would endanger.
Oh, and there's one other hitch for Boehner: Many of his 232 House Republicans refuse to acknowledge almost any of this, believing the only plausible explanation for the failure to enact their agenda is a lack of courage on the part of their leaders, of whom they are chronically suspicious. How, then, has Boehner managed to keep his job? You could spend months reading political science journals and come up with no better answer than this: The man gets crazy people.