John Boehner is not backing down. On Sunday’s This Week, an energized House speaker told host George Stephanopoulos that he is thoroughly in control of the shutdown planning among House Republicans, and firmly said that “we are not going to pass a clean debt-limit increase” under any circumstances.
But even now, it’s not totally clear how long this version of John Boehner will last.
The speaker has not had an abundance of opportunities to explain himself to the public during the current shutdown fiasco. Sunday’s interview was his first on network T.V. since the shutdown began. That’s obviously at least in part by his own choice. But the result is a foggy image of who the speaker is, what he really wants, and what he’d be willing to do to find a deal to reopen the government and prevent a debt default later this month.
Instead, Boehner has largely been seen in frames. On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew portrayed Boehner on Fox News Sunday as someone overwhelmed by his caucus. “I know John Boehner,” Lew said. He didn’t want a shutdown, and he doesn’t want a debt default. For months, if not years, Democratic congressional leadership has taken to saying things like, “I like John Boehner,” or that they “feel sorry” for Boehner, and that he only needs to get a bit of courage to push a deal through the House.
On the opposite side, you have far-right conservative members saying that Boehner is “actually leading,” with Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., telling National Journal that “we’re all so proud of him right now.” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who voted against Boehner for speaker earlier this year, said last week that the speaker is now “the leader we always wanted him to be.”
Boehner has shown elements of all of these beings in his decades long political career. In the early 1990s, Boehner helped lead an activist conservative faction of the House known as the Gang of Seven. But the speaker is also the politician who twice violated the Hastert “majority of the majority” rule in order to pass a budget agreement and disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims.
But Boehner is obviously not all of these people at once right now. He’s not both the sympathetic, weak-willed Potemkin leader and the warrior leading the charge from the right. That’s why his appearance today actually matters.
And on Sunday, the speaker did his best to strike warrior. Forget the Hastert Rule, Boehner said on This Week, “there are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR.” Host George Stephanopoulos repeatedly pushed Boehner on the idea that what’s happening in the House isn’t what he wants, and pointedly asked Boehner if the House GOP strategy was “decided for you.” The speaker hit back:
“I and working with my members decided to do this in a unified way. George, I have 233 Republicans in the House. And you’ve never seen a more dedicated group of people who are thoroughly concerned about the future of our country. They believe that Obamacare, all these regulations coming out of the administration are threatening the future for our kids and our grandkids. And it’s time for us to stand and fight.”
Stephanopoulos isn’t the first to air the question, and Boehner’s answer isn’t likely to put it to bed, despite the unified-battle attitude. The speaker was also directly asked if Sen. Ted Cruz is a shadow leader running the House GOP. Boehner didn’t address Cruz directly in response, but said that even though his initial plan was to hold off on an Obamacare fight until the debt ceiling, he decided with his members to go after the law on the CR. “The fact is, this fight was going to come,” Boehner said, “one way or the other.”
So is this the John Boehner we have now? A self-styled general leading the charge against Obamacare, no matter the costs? “I’m a reasonable guy,” the speaker said Sunday. In the next couple weeks, we’ll get to see exactly what that means.