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Boehner in Charge

How the House speaker rallied his restive troops.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By FRED BARNES
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One, Boehner is more adept and clever than his reputation in the media would lead one to believe. In moving to the right, he acknowledged that smart but impatient conservatives are the majority in the Republican caucus. Those labeled “chuckleheads” last year by retiring Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio​—​perhaps as many as 20 libertarians, loners, and oddballs​—​are peripheral actors. And the notion that an amorphous “Tea Party” or various right-wing lobbies call the shots is absurd.

Two, it takes conservative policy initiatives to unify House Republicans. True, a few dozen moderates and old bulls are upset about the government shutdown and the blame Democrats and the media are heaping on Republicans. Their angst is understandable. But if they are permitted to rule the roost, GOP unity collapses, and Boehner will be on his way out.

Three, the very partial government shutdown is not the end of the world for Republicans. The shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 weren’t either. Obama’s insistence on not rising to the occasion​—​his unpresidential passivity​—​means he’ll share any political damage. By refusing to negotiate, he acts as if dealing with the crisis in Washington isn’t in his job description. Most Americans, who expect a lot from their president, wouldn’t agree. Can you think of any other president who neglected his duty in this fashion? I can’t.

Four, the shutdown hasn’t paralyzed Republican leaders. Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy have proved to be quite resourceful in responding to Democratic claims of hardship and cruelty in the shutdown. Medical trials at the National Institutes of Health have been postponed? Okay, the House passed a bill to continue NIH funding. National parks are closed? The House voted to open them. Veterans are suffering? The House funded their benefits. The National Guard and reserves have been sidelined? The House voted to reactivate them. Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have pressured their underlings to vote against these bills, but 57 have broken ranks. That’s progress, but not enough to overcome the Democratic Senate. Compare that with Republican unity. And when CNN’s Dana Bash asked Reid about possible harms to a child with cancer, he had an anxiety attack. Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, among others, was an early advocate of this tactic.

Five, leading with a strong yet unattainable proposal can make a fallback position quite acceptable. Defunding Obama-care was a bridge too far for most Americans. Guess what? While 53 percent in a Fox News poll oppose defunding, a 57 percent majority believe Obamacare “should be delayed for a year until more details are ironed out.”

That Boehner has capitulated to right-wing noisemakers is the idea-du-jour in political and press circles. It’s half true. He’s caved, but it’s to Republican reality, which is closer to the beliefs of most Americans than what is emerging these days from the Obama-Reid-Pelosi axis. Boehner may have jumped on a train as it was leaving the station. But he did it in time to steer the train where it needs to go. 

Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.

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