Papa John Delivers


National Journal
Major Garrett
See more stories about...
Major Garrett
Feb. 18, 2014, 3:07 p.m.

Papa John Boehner de­liv­ers.

He al­ways has, in his own curi­ous and cir­cuit­ous way.

But Papa John’s ef­fi­ciency and re­li­ab­il­ity, at least in some neigh­bor­hoods, have im­proved.

The starch­i­est cliche in the Obama White House since 2011 has been that House Speak­er John Boehner couldn’t de­liv­er a pizza. That meant Boehner couldn’t de­liv­er votes to the Obama White House for deals it wanted to cut with House Re­pub­lic­ans. As if that was Papa John’s job.

It was a mildly clev­er jab that rang true. Boehner’s frac­tious co­ali­tion of mid-1990s-era hard heads (whom Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy called on the car­pet at the re­cent GOP re­treat as be­ing the most un­re­li­able lead­er­ship votes in the con­fer­ence) and tea-party-in­spired ruf­fi­ans was dif­fi­cult to lead in the best of times. It was nearly im­possible to steer when the polit­ic­al in­ter­locutor was Pres­id­ent Obama or one of his seni­or staff.

In 2011 there were many cliff-hanger votes — some of which Boehner lost and were fol­lowed by scath­ing cri­ti­cism of his polit­ic­al clum­si­ness. The ques­tion arose: How could Boehner preside over eco­nom­ic­ally dan­ger­ous and polit­ic­ally costly flir­ta­tions with gov­ern­ment shut­down and gov­ern­ment de­fault — things Papa John mani­festly op­posed and found tac­tic­ally stu­pid?

These white-knuckle events re­peated them­selves in the fisc­al-cliff talks after the 2012 elec­tion, when the se­quest­ra­tion cuts ap­proached, and again this fall when the gov­ern­ment shuttered and Wash­ing­ton ap­peared reck­less and feck­less.

Again and again Papa John found him­self lost in these le­gis­lat­ive cul-de-sacs — with the meta­phor­ic­al pizza get­ting cold and no ap­par­ent GPS to re­dir­ect him.

Lately, though, Papa John’s been ar­riv­ing on time, serving up hot pizza to Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and the White House just as ordered, not an in­gredi­ent out of place. First, it was a budget deal with more up-front spend­ing (via smal­ler se­quest­ra­tion) and budget sav­ings stuffed in­to the out-year crust (al­ways a Belt­way fa­vor­ite). Then there was a double-cheese deep-dish debt deal that didn’t raise the leg­al bor­row­ing au­thor­ity but sus­pen­ded it for a full year — there’s noth­ing like a cal­or­ie-free slice of fed­er­al debt to tide you over be­fore a midterm elec­tion.

Re­id now beams his ap­prov­al and would, if pos­sible, give Papa John Boehner a Yelp! shout-out for the ages. So would Obama, so long as the pizza is ve­g­gie and no soda was de­livered on the side (“Let’s Move,” after all, isn’t a sug­ges­tion).

The time has come to won­der what Papa John has been up to all this time — and if his de­liv­er­ies are any dif­fer­ent or his cus­tom­ers ac­tu­ally more sat­is­fied. That re­quires reex­amin­ing whom Papa John was serving, what he was selling, and how he defined suc­cess.

It’s al­ways dan­ger­ous to go back through his­tory and di­vine mas­ter strategy from man­ic im­pro­visa­tion. Even Boehner’s closest and most trus­ted aides don’t pre­tend Papa John wasn’t frus­trated, furi­ous, and at times be­fuddled by his con­fer­ence’s stub­born re­fus­al to com­pre­hend the path from what they wanted to what could pass Con­gress and what Obama would sign. Papa John’s loy­al­ists don’t pitch tac­tic­al bril­liance. They speak softly of sur­viv­al, like dazed pas­sen­gers emer­ging from an icy in­ter­state spin out.

But Papa John may have known his busi­ness bet­ter than we ima­gined. Yes, the end product was le­gis­la­tion. But he mar­keted in­san­ity. Suc­cess­fully.

The one pur­pose, meas­ured over time, served by Papa John’s le­gis­lat­ive me­an­der­ings, stop-and-start ne­go­ti­ations, and oc­ca­sion­al el­ev­enth-hour show­downs was to prove his GOP con­fer­ence was crazy — cap­able of any­thing. That tac­tic­al tool, blunt and mis­shapen as it was, proved to be all Papa John had with which to bar­gain.

Obama and Re­id against him, Boehner knew this tool only worked on must-pass bills, which is why, in a cer­tain meth­od-to-the-mad­ness way, ir­ra­tion­al­ity and volat­il­ity served a de­cept­ively diabol­ic­al pur­pose. Yes, it was an ex­as­per­at­ing pro­cess. It in­flic­ted meas­ur­able harm to the eco­nomy, pub­lic trust, and the stand­ard le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess (“reg­u­lar or­der”) to which Papa John pays such hy­po­crit­ic­al lip ser­vice.

The dis­ease of ir­ra­tion­al­ity, like a spilled vir­us, was hard to con­tain. It in­fec­ted Papa John’s lead­er­ship circle. The spec­tacle of House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor and Mc­Carthy con­tort­ing them­selves be­fore the con­fer­ence and vot­ing against the “fisc­al cliff” deal when Boehner and newly min­ted lead­er­ship mem­ber Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, against her ini­tial in­clin­a­tions, voted for it still pro­vokes shud­ders.

But in an era defined by hos­til­ity to in­sti­tu­tion­al power and prerog­at­ives, Boehner pos­sessed the weak­est le­gis­lat­ive hand of any speak­er in 100 years — maybe more. In­san­ity took on a sin­is­ter san­ity all its own.

The res­ult?

Papa John aver­ted a 2011 gov­ern­ment shut­down with the first ac­tu­al spend­ing cuts since 1995, achieved an un­pre­ced­en­ted (genu­inely) dol­lar-for-dol­lar debt in­crease to a spend­ing cut deal, forced Obama to re­write his reelec­tion tax brack­et sub­ject to in­creases from $250,000 to $400,000 ($450,000 for joint filers), im­posed a full-year of se­quest­ra­tion cuts, got de­fense first dibs when se­quest­ra­tion was softened, passed a midterm budget deal his con­fer­ence could live with, and sus­pen­ded the debt ceil­ing with min­im­al GOP votes.

And Boehner is still speak­er. Don’t ever for­get, that was al­ways job No. 1.

Yes, his party’s polit­ic­al stand­ing is far weak­er than Obama’s. But Re­pub­lic­ans don’t fear los­ing their House ma­jor­ity. Some hold out hopes of gain­ing a hand­ful of seats this year. The re­tire­ments of top Demo­crats George Miller and Henry Wax­man, both of Cali­for­nia, roughly con­firm GOP op­tim­ism is not mis­placed.

But ir­ra­tion­al­ity, like in­no­cence, has a shelf life. There is nev­er any genu­ine ir­ra­tion­al­ity or in­no­cence in polit­ics. Papa John’s tac­tic­al op­tions are di­min­ished and so, there­fore, are his le­gis­lat­ive aims. The pizza Papa John de­livered his con­fer­ence was nev­er much to their lik­ing, though it should have been — con­sid­er­ing what there was to work with. Papa John’s now de­liv­er­ing for Re­id and Obama.

The fact is, Papa John has been de­liv­er­ing all along. It’s just nobody knew it.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al Cor­res­pond­ent-at-Large and Chief White House Cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4742) }}

What We're Following See More »
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.