Who Will John Boehner Be This Week?

The speaker, seen largely through other people’s eyes, took to <em>This Week</em> to lay out what kind of leader he really is.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) arrives to Capitol Hill as the federal government shut down goes in to its fifth day on October 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Oct. 6, 2013, 6:34 a.m.

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.

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