Papa John Delivers

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National Journal
Major Garrett
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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.

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