An emboldened John Boehner, after years of capitulating to the right wing of his party, suddenly has turned into The Most Interesting Man in Politics.
This is quite a change for the House speaker, who previously could have been more accurately been dubbed The Most Spineless Man in Politics; or The Most Aggrieved Person in Washington; or the Guy in Charge of the Asylum. And while the metamorphosis is far too fresh to allow for in-depth analysis, the new and improved Boehner has offered some hope for a more productive and less contentious congressional year.
Boehner, for three years now, has simultaneously been in one of the most enviable and one of the least enviable positions in Washington. The Ohio Republican has been at the top of his party’s leadership, but it has been a party in which Tea Party conservatives have wielded an inordinate amount of power. Yet when leaders of the House and Senate reached a budget agreement shortly before Christmas, Boehner seemed to be transformed. His intestinal fortitude, which long had been two sizes too small, grew three sizes as he took on conservative king-making groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth.
“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Boehner told a meeting of Republicans, according to the New York Times. “They are not fighting for conservative policy. The are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money, and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”
Days later, speaking to reporters, Boehner said of the groups, “Frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.” That led the group Tea Party Patriots to refer to Boehner as somebody who only pretends to be a conservative while being a “tax-and-spend liberal” — which, apparently, is the worst insult you can hurl at a person.
Boehner hasn’t backed down. He is risking additional Tea Party wrath, and that is one of the things that makes the coming year somewhat promising. Boehner has hired Rebecca Tallent, a longtime immigration adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and has indicated that he will lead Republicans in considering vast changes to the nation’s immigration laws. Boehner said last week that he is committed to “step-by-step” immigration reform, considering items such as tightened border security, increased legal immigration, and an eventual path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
That is where it gets interesting — and where the situation hits home in Clark County. A willingness to stare down Tea Party Republicans will invite primary challengers for Republican members of the House as they head into an election year. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has not declared whether she will seek re-election but already has drawn a Republican challenger in Michael Delavar, a former board member of the Clark County Republican Party. In-party challengers are relatively rare for incumbents, but it’s equally rare to have a party as divided as Republicans are these days.
That is what makes Boehner so interesting. If he remains willing to challenge the right wing of his party rather than capitulate, the result could be some movement in what has been a stand-still Congress. But it also could bring the Republicans’ family feud out into the open and make for a more-compelling-than-usual primary election season. There is hope for a more diplomatic and more productive Congress in 2014, but it’s too early to tell whether peace is breaking out in Washington, D.C.