Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Boehner Takes the Gavel

Ezra Klein is impressed by John Boehner’s words accepting the Speakership:
“Boehner promised almost nothing at all. He certainly didn't set himself up as a foil to President Obama, or anoint himself leader of a new conservative moment in American politics. Rather, his speech had two themes: Humility, and comity. He called his chamber "the people's house," and said "we are carrying out their instructions." He spent a lot of time on the "scar tissue" that has built up under "some of the rituals that have come to characterize this institution under majorities Republican and Democratic alike." He promised a new era of openness and minority cooperation in the House. He emphasized his recognition that he held the gavel not because American liked him or his party, but because they were angry at the government and the Democrats who ran it.

“It was, I think, as smart a speech as I've seen a politician give -- in part because it was savvy about what it didn't say, which is a rare virtue in Washington. . . . [T]hus far, Boehner's political instincts have been quite impressive. The White House may have a more able opponent in him than they thought.”
It’s always risky to bet that a politician will remain true to his word. But I think Klein is on to something when he says that these were the right words for Boehner to say under the circumstances.

When he commends Boehner for promising “almost nothing at all,” Klein’s drawing a shrewd comparison with the ideologically assertive Speakerships of Pelosi and Gingrich. They both accepted the Speaker’s gavel with the swagger of the leader of the loyal opposition in a parliamentary democracy. They thought that, when the other party holds the presidency, it’s the Speaker’s job to go toe-to-toe with the White House by putting a counter-agenda up against the President’s agenda.

Bracing for that fight, neither Gingrich nor Pelosi was about to let arcane procedural constraints tie a hand behind their backs. There’s something to be said for that approach to the Speakership. With less assertive Speakers, Republicans probably wouldn’t have gotten welfare reform and spending cuts during the Clinton presidency, and Democrats probably wouldn’t have gotten ObamaCare last year.

Yet Gingrich Republicans and Pelosi Democrats both paid a steep price for their achievements in the currency of democratic legitimacy. The Gingrich House is remembered, most of all, for irresponsibly shutting down the government and showing its disdain for the voter's preferences in the 1996 election by impeaching Bill Clinton on frivolous grounds. The Pelosi House will be remembered for reaching a momentous decision about the health care system that carried so little democratic authority that Republicans could win back the House in eight months by promising to do their best to repeal it. Neither the Gingrich nor the Pelosi House secured a legacy commensurate with its Speaker's ambitions because its deliberations lacked the finality that characterizes legitimate democratic decision-making.

That, I think, is what makes Boehner’s ostentatious display of “[h]umility” and “comity” a potent political message. He knows that he owes his office to the widespread sense of disgust with the legislative sausage-making we’ve seen over the last two years. He’ll face the challenge of presiding over a legislative body that a substantial number of voters no longer recognize as “the people’s house” because they don’t think its decisions give due weight to their preferences. Boehner’s first, and most important, order of business is to repair the institutional damage.


Anonymous said...

I wish Boehner the best. He started off on the right foot to be sure. (Though, mostly, I wish he'd lay off the self-tanner.)

Anonymous said...

I'd wish Boehner the best too, if I could. But every time a see him with the gavel in his hand I get a little misty-eyed.