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.
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.