His top lieutenant had been ousted by an unknown and underfunded college professor who enjoys Ayn Rand and karaoke, his Republican colleagues were engaged in a fractious succession race, and any hope of legislative achievement for the rest of the year had gone from slim to nil.
So John Boehner, facing the cameras for his weekly news conference Thursday, went to his usual fallback. He criticized President Obama — on job creation, veterans' health care, the Bergdahl prisoner exchange, Syria, Libya, Egypt and, particularly, Iraq. Obama is “taking a nap,” the speaker said, while “we've seen big cities in Iraq overrun with terrorists.” He repeatedly demanded that the president (who at that moment was awake and in the Oval Office with the Australian prime minister) “get engaged” in Iraq.
Ah, but how? “Do you think the U.S. should be launching airstrikes?” inquired Nancy Cordes of CBS News. “And if not, what should the U.S. do?” “I don't know enough of the details about the airstrikes to comment,” the speaker answered. All he could propose was that we should “provide the equipment and the technical assistance that the Iraqis have been asking for.”
Actually, the administration has been providing equipment and assistance, but what the Iraqis want are airstrikes — and the speaker wasn't about to commit to that. This was classic Boehner: He opposed Obama's policy — whatever policy — but offered no alternative.
Play-it-safe leadership has kept Boehner in power — stronger than ever, arguably — even as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the more conservative of the two, fell to a right-wing primary challenger. Cantor had tried to nudge the party to be more inclusive, but even his modest gestures on immigration appear to have cost him his job.
Boehner, by contrast, chooses job security at the cost of leadership. The Ohioan continues to lead House Republicans, but only in the way a rodeo competitor leads the bull he's riding. It's the safe path for him: He keeps his job by doing nothing that might rile rank-and-file conservatives.
Cantor's defeat has widely been interpreted as another conservative rebuke of Washington, and nothing says Washington like Boehner, a 23-year denizen of the capital who wore a necktie Thursday featuring a repeating pattern of Capitol domes. But he avoided anything that might offend tea party activists by answering questions with banality.
Fox News' Chad Pergram asked about the tea party's role in Cantor's defeat. Boehner answered with a non sequitur about how “the American people are being squeezed by Obama's policies.” When Pergram pressed for a germane reply, Boehner held out his hands and wiggled his fingers, as if he were being asked to touch something messy. “I'm not going to analyze that race,” he said.
CNN's Dana Bash asked whether Boehner favored Kevin McCarthy of California as the next majority leader. “I can work with whoever gets elected,” he replied.
NBC News' Luke Russert inquired about whether immigration reform is dead because of Cantor's defeat. Boehner answered with another irrelevancy about how “the president continues to ignore laws.” ABC News' Jeff Zeleny pursued the point with three follow-ups, but he got only pursed lips and demurrals from Boehner — “I'm not going to analyze. ... We don't know that that is the issue” — before the speaker called on another questioner.
Boehner has defied conservatives before, on the government shutdown, hurricane relief and the budget deal — but only after letting his tea party backbenchers try and fail at their favored approach. Though he lashed out late last year against conservative groups that lobbied against a budget deal, he has since piped down.
Thanks in part to gerrymandering, the vast majority of Republican members of Congress are in safe seats and have no incentive to compromise, because compromise might invite a primary challenge. Cantor was undone in part by conservative voters who had been added to his district by a Republican redistricting effort.
In this environment, the only hope for agreement is that leaders, for the good of party or country, would coerce rank-and-file conservatives to cooperate. But with Cantor's defeat, Boehner has lost any ability to do that. And Cantor's likely successor as majority leader, McCarthy, is a vanilla figure who will be at least as cautious as Boehner.
This is why nothing should be expected from House Republicans, on immigration or anything else. For Boehner's job security, it is the safe play; for the country, it is the most risky.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.
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