John Boehner Goes to War

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 12 2013 1:59 PM

John Boehner Goes to War

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His weapon: incredulity.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

There is a decidedly Punch-and-Judy feel to the current Boehner-vs.-Tea Party argument. Reporters learned yesterday that asking Boehner what he made of "outside groups" would bring him to a quick boil. So today, at his scheduled Thursday presser, reporters prodded Boehner again.

The speaker was even more biting over budget disagreements, saying that the groups are "misleading their followers, they're pushing our members in places where they don't want to be, and frankly I think they've lost all credibility."
"It just comes to a point where some people step over the line," the speaker said. "When you criticize something and you have no idea what you're criticizing, it undermines your credibility."
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Cue: FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity and everyone else with an office condemning Boehner for this calumny. Cue the Club for Growth issuing a "key vote" alert, which means any Republican who backs the deal negotiated by Paul Ryan will see a drop in his overall score. Everybody gets to build his/her email list; everybody wins.

The only question is whether Boehner is running a wonderful distraction or whether this really does represent a move to make the Professional Right less relevant. The reason Paul Ryan had to flog this deal, and Boehner couldn't, was that the right stopped respecting Boehner years ago. In the summer of 2011, in December 2012, when he tried to save his party some face and pass big spending bills without Democratic votes, a rump of his members refused to get him across the 217-vote line. Over time this emboldened more members, who philosophically agreed with the easily lampooned right-wingers, and Boehner was denied dozens of Republican votes on his measures. 

Ryan's role, this week, was to tell the base that Boehner was right. You wanted to achieve real conservative change? You should have won the 2012 election. If even Heritage Action President Michael Needham was saying that Obamacare was the law until Barack Obama left the White House, then the right had no actual strategy for forcing its legislation through a divided Congress. 

Conservative members of the conference are taking this dispute seriously. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, whom the leadership considers a bomb-throwing fool, told reporters yesterday that the party was erring in not trying to pass more conservative alternatives in the House. "Why don't we PASS our alternative to Obamacare?" he asked.

UPDATE: We have a Vine, which you can click on if you want audio.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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