If you were John Boehner, you’d cry too

Why journalists should put the struggles of the House speaker in a larger context

On Thursday, John Boehner survived some conservative defections to narrowly win re-election as Speaker of the House, prompting a predictable display of emotion from the notoriously weepy speaker.

With the vote taking place just days after Boehner allowed the House to pass a bill addressing the so-called “fiscal cliff” that was opposed by a majority of Republicans, numerous news reports on the vote for speaker noted the difficulty he has faced in exercising leadership over his caucus during the last two years.

Unfortunately, most of these articles fell into an awkward middle ground that frequently plagues political coverage in Washington. The best reporting and analysis either provides rich new details on what is happening on Capitol Hill or puts events there into a broader political or policy context. However, too many articles make no contributions in either area, instead providing brief, episodic coverage that contains few specifics and little explanatory depth.

In this case, coverage of Boehner often consisted of unsubstantiated assertions that his demeanor and leadership approach have reduced his ability to exercise control over the House. The New York Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg, for instance, wrote a profile that asked, “Why does Mr. Boehner want this job, anyway?” But despite noting in her lede that Boehner has “struggled to maintain a grip on his fractious caucus,” the only clues she gives readers about precisely why Boehner’s job is so difficult are a brief reference to some defeated moderate supporters and a suggestion that his “good-natured demeanor can sometimes work against him” because “Republicans like him, but they do not fear him.” But why don’t they fear him? Stolberg doesn’t say. (A companion piece by Jonathan Weisman offered little additional context for why “discord” and “tension” surrounded Boehner’s re-election beyond a mention that some conservatives wished for a more confrontational approach to negotiating with President Obama.)

Likewise, The Washington Post’s Paul Kane blamed Boehner’s leadership style, writing that he “has had trouble effectively wielding the speaker’s gavel at times. His hands-off style has often allowed minor rebellions to turn into major setbacks.” Kane points to the decision to allow an up-or-down vote on the “fiscal cliff” bill from the Senate: the “GOP leadership essentially ceded control of the floor to the Democratic minority for that vote,” he writes. But as the congressional scholars David Karol and Frances Lee noted at the blog The Monkey Cage, “GOP Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of the procedural rule to permit an up-or-down vote on the Senate deal.” In other words, the decision to allow the bill to pass was not a “hands-off” decision made by Boehner alone, but was tacitly approved by almost his entire caucus.

In its very last paragraphs, however, Kane’s article does do something useful that that this sort of middle-ground journalism rarely attempts—considering the counterfactual. If another Republican became speaker and employed a slightly different demeanor or leadership style, would he or she be significantly more successful? It seems unlikely. As Kane writes, “Even some Republicans who supported Boehner did so not because they thought he was successful at the job, but because they weren’t sure that anyone could do a better job of managing their unwieldy caucus.”

The underlying problem is that the House GOP is a highly polarized caucus operating under divided government and thus faces deep internal tensions between demands for ideological purity and the necessity of compromise. As the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein pointed out on The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, it’s much harder to seem effective under these circumstances than, say, the period of unified Democratic control Nancy Pelosi enjoyed during in 2009-2010.

The best analyses of the Ohio Republican’s speakership consider the structural factors and historical trends that have made it so difficult for him to control his caucus under these circumstances. For example, National Review’s Robert Costa cited one factor that makes it harder for Boehner to round up votes during an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursday—the GOP’s ban on earmarks, which prevents him from offering pork in exchange for a member’s support of a bill. (It likewise prevents him from removing earmarks to punish members—one reason the speaker might not be feared.)

Another important factor identified by The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib (among others) is the way that members’ incentives are affected by the changing composition of the districts they represent. “As both states and congressional districts become more clearly red or blue—dominated by Republican voters and Democratic voters, respectively—an increasing number of lawmakers worry less about a political challenge from the other party and more about a primary challenge from a ideologically driven conservative or liberal from within the lawmaker’s own party,” Seib writes. Given the deep fears of a primary challenge that exist among members of Boehner’s caucus, it’s no surprise that many aren’t willing to fall into line for the good of the party.

Finally, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza describes several other changes in Congress that reduce Boehner’s power relative to previous House speakers: the weakening of personal relationships between legislators, members’ greater ability to raise funds and attract media attention independently, and the diminished tenures of speakers in the contemporary Congress.

When reporters provide this sort of context, it helps voters understand why John Boehner has such a tough job—and why superficial explanations of his struggles fall short.

Follow the author on Twitter @BrendanNyhan.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: