Friday, July 29, 2011

What Did Pelosi Have That Boehner Lacks? (Updated)

So Boehner doesn’t have the votes. I suppose it’s possible that he’ll get them today, but it’s hard to say why having Tea Partiers “sleep on it” overnight is going to help him. That raises a good question that reader Glenn asked the other day:
“How come Pelosi could get House blue dogs to cut their own throat politically by voting for things like Cap and Trade, but it’s so hard for Boehner to get Tea Partiers to vote for his plan when it represents a victory over Obama? It doesn't make sense.”
No, it doesn’t make sense as long as you’re just thinking of a congressional caucus as a bunch of people driven only by their ideological commitments. The spectrum of ideological opinion in Pelosi’s caucus was just as wide, if not wider, than the spectrum of opinion in Boehner’s caucus. So why was she so much better at twisting the arms of reluctant caucus members than he appears to be?

The answer, I think, is pretty straightforward. Pelosi was still operating in a political world that left room for bribery and logrolling. She was navigating her way through a political marketplace that established a reasonably well-defined rate of exchange between pork and ideological payoffs. So, as long as she was willing to pay the going rate, she could get blue dog democrats to overcome their ideological scruples and their job insecurities. Historically speaking, there was nothing unusual about that.  Pork has always been the grease that enables the wheels of our Madisonian system to turn.

Boehner’s navigating over much less forgiving terrain without much grease to start with. With the exception of a few doddering members of the old school, his caucus has already sworn off pork and tried-and-true methods of distributing it like earmarks. When Boehner starts trying to twist the arms of his members he’s reduced largely to appealing to their sense of partisan loyalty and political advantage. Yes, he can flash choice committee assignments before their eyes, but there are a lot fewer of those than there used to be among caucus members who no longer care much about bringing bacon home.

That means when a politician still wet behind the ears plants himself in one of the overstuffed armchairs in the Speaker’s office before a crucial vote Boehner’s the supplicant, imploring the member not to undermine his Speakership. It testifies to his persuasiveness in that capacity that he's gotten politicians as ambitious and ideologically rigid as Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence to play ball with him.  But that doesn't make up for the fact that Boehner has few carrots and fewer sticks at his disposal. 

Depending on your point of view, this is a matter of Republican craziness or ideological integrity.  Whatever you call it, it's paralyzing Republicans.

Update:  Reports suggest that the only way Boehner could get his caucus behind him was through the ideological sweetener of conditioning the second debt-ceiling increase on a balanced-budget amendment's being sent to the states.  That's the only way politics is played nowadays in Republican circles.


Jazz said...

So let me get this straight. You're saying Republicans (specifically, tea party Republicans) can't be bribed, but Democrats (specifically, Blue Dogs), can. Interesting.

Is this good or bad?

Mean Voter said...

To Jazz: No, Replogle is saying everyone can be bribed, it's just that the Boehner doesn't have anything to bribe WITH, and Pelosi did.

Larry said...

To a blue-dog Democrat, accepting bribes and representing your constituents is pretty much the same thing.

Sosueme said...

To Mr. R: You seem to denigrate Republicans for having an unwavering ideology. That seems kind of harsh.

Ron Replogle said...


I don't think I've said anything derogatory about anybody. But the point of having a political party is to turn individual preferences into collective action. The Republicans aren't succeeding in doing that right now because they can't achieve an intra-party consensus. Neither, I might add, are the Democrats in the Senate inasmuch as they haven't even tried to pass a bill raising the debt ceiling. If you ask me, right now there's not much point in belonging to one party or the other.