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A Pointless Plot to Oust John Boehner


House Republicans are always plotting something, have you noticed? Most of their plots fail, though: whether it’s shutting down the government over Obamacare, or arbitrarily destroying the global economy via debt default. And when one of their plots fail, the House Republicans and their Tea Party allies always seem to have the same go-to response: it must have been John Boehner’s fault.


Caricature of John Boehner
via Donkey Hotey

The Speaker sold us out, they cry. He’s probably actually a liberal! If only the Speaker had had more of a “backbone” or “spine,” this line of thinking goes, perhaps House Republicans’ threats to destroy the country in one way or another would have successfully compelled President Obama to sign the repeal of his signature health care law, or whatever else the GOP is after.

Speaker Boehner will once again be up for reelection as the House’s main man when the new Congress convenes in January (when Congress will almost certainly still under Republican control). And so now, the Tea Party conservatives within the caucus are already preparing their latest dumb plot: this time it’s to de-gavel the orange-hued Ohioan himself.

Tim Alberta in National Journal reports:

Several dozen frustrated House conservatives are scheming to infiltrate the GOP leadership next year—possibly by forcing Speaker John Boehner to step aside immediately after November’s midterm elections.

The conservatives’ exasperation with leadership is well known. And now, in discreet dinners at the Capitol Hill Club and in winding, hypothetical-laced email chains, they’re trying to figure out what to do about it. Some say it’s enough to coalesce behind—and start whipping votes for—a single conservative leadership candidate. Others want to cut a deal with Majority Leader Eric Cantor: We’ll back you for speaker if you promise to bring aboard a conservative lieutenant.

This plot is already pretty comical, mostly because it’s fun to picture those “hypothetical-laced email chains” in which the early stages of the Revolution are being waged. One imagines dozens of responses written in giant-type Comic Sans, in alternating blue and pink ink, thoughtfully musing, “1ST WE GET RID OF THE BOEHENR THEN WE HAVE NO TAXSS??

Look: I’m only making fun of these secret ouster-plotters because they deserve to be made fun of. There is a history here, and they should learn from it. At the beginning of the current Congress, a small band of conservatives attempted a coup against Boehner. It quite obviously didn’t pan out. Let’s remember, together, that great moment in American political history, as described by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green:

Here’s where things went truly, hilariously awry. Any good coup depends on stealth. But on Thursday, an enterprising Politico photographer snapped Representative Tim Huelskamp sitting in open session reading from his iPad—not making this up—the entire roster of the plot against Boehner. Just so there was no mistaking that he was up to no good, the document was entitled “YOU WOULD BE FIRED IF THIS GOES OUT.” Not making that up either.

Worse still, half the roster on Huelskamp’s iPad lost their nerve and bailed out. In the end, only nine Republicans broke ranks. Three cast votes for Cantor (who was visibly disgusted), two for recently ousted Representative Allen West, and one for a former U.S. comptroller general. Several of the plotters even voted for each other. Boehner was reelected Speaker.

Republican Representative Trent Franks probably put it best when he described the coup as “a ridiculous miscalculation on the part of a sincere, but completely inept” group of colleagues. All in all, a tough loss. Presumably, the plotters have gained a newfound appreciation for Boehner’s skills and how difficult it is to wrangle votes.

Ah, memories.

In any case, let’s put that aside for now and hypothesize that, say, forty or fifty House Republicans are currently actually serious about denying Boehner a majority vote at the beginning of the next Congress. What, exactly, do they hope to gain?

National Journal’s Alberta explains that these members are “increasingly irritated with what they see as a cautious approach taken by their leadership.” Got it. They don’t think John Boehner is doing enough to advance conservative goals.

But that “caution” is not because John Boehner is a uniquely weak person. That is not because all the GOP needs to do to change Washington is to replace him with some other, hypothetical, Magical Conservative who will take a harder line. If anything, Boehner’s weakness as a House speaker stems from the fact that he has allowed conservatives to get away with so much—like, say, gunning for a government shutdown and causing several intimate brush-ups with debt default—without wielding the traditional power of the leadership to penalize such errant behavior.

There are two major reasons that the most conservative wing of the House Republican majority isn’t getting its way. One, the GOP only controls one wing of Congress, while Democrats control the other wing and the presidency. Two, their grand ideas, like various iterations of Paul Ryan’s budget, are simply not popular among the American public. In fact, one might say that the GOP’s limited control of the organs of American power and the unpopularity of their policy proposals are closely correlated phenomena.

Boehner just doesn’t have as much agency as his conservatives critics would like to believe. As speaker of the House, he has followed the natural incentives presented to him, and he’s done about as fair a job as could be expected of balancing the competing interests of pleasing his caucus on the one hand, and ensuring the overall future viability of the Republican party on the other. Any replacement would discover in short order that the strategy of taking a less “cautious” approach is all fun and games, until the government can no longer sell Treasury bonds, and the global economy falls apart.