By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — As House Republican backbenchers hurtle toward a government shutdown and a default on the national debt, their leaders remain in charge in title only.
Perhaps some changes in job descriptions are in order.
Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will now be Spokesman Boehner, for he serves only as a mouthpiece for the desires of House conservatives.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia will henceforth be Majority Follower Cantor.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California will become simply Whipped McCarthy, presiding over a staff of whipped deputies.
These three members of the GOP followership surrendered without much of a fight Wednesday morning at a meeting of House Republicans in the Capitol basement. After rank-and-file members shot down their plan to avoid a shutdown, the followers announced to the media a new plan: Not only would they refuse to fund the government beyond Sept. 30 unless President Obama agrees to abolish Obamacare but they would allow the government to default on its debt in October if Obama does not meet their demands on taxes, energy policy and the health-care law.
“We aim to put a stop to Obamacare,” Majority Follower Cantor announced.
Added Whipped McCarthy, “I have not watched our conference be so united as we walk into this battle.”
They’re “united,” all right — but only in the sense that the leaders, about to be trampled by their own lines, picked up batons and pretended they were leading a parade.
CNN’s Dana Bash reminded Spokesman Boehner that “it’s no secret that you did not want to attach defunding Obamacare to this spending bill. I know it’s not been easy to be speaker over this caucus, but at this point, have you kind of lost control over the caucus?”
Spokesman Boehner did not deny the premise. “Listen, we’ve got a lot of divergent opinions in the caucus, and the key to any leadership job is to listen,” he said. “We listened to our colleagues over the course of the last week. We have a plan that they’re happy with.”
He said he was employing the “management model” of Speaker Newt Gingrich, a formula Spokesman Boehner described as “listen, learn, help and lead.”
It’s not clear why the GOP followership would be imitating the leadership of Gingrich, who presided over the 1990s shutdown debacle, or why Spokesman Boehner hasn’t been doing the “lead” part of Gingrich’s formula. But this shall remain unknown, because a followership aide called out “last question” just 90 seconds into the Q&A.
Republican sources told The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe that in the closed-door meeting, Spokesman Boehner warned the neophytes in the caucus that the 1990s shutdowns were a big boost to President Bill Clinton. “Clinton’s poll numbers were really bad; he was flat on his back,” Spokesman Boehner told the audience, according to the sources.
Several lawmakers in the room chuckled at that remark, taking it as a reference to Clinton’s sex scandals.
They can laugh now, but polls indicate that the public would again blame a government shutdown on the GOP, and rightly so. This is not a case of both sides needing to compromise. Republicans don’t have the votes to enact their policies, so they’re attempting this back-door method: Agree to our demands or we’ll take down the government and the economy. This is government by ransom, piracy over policy.
The few Republicans in the caucus who have long memories know the backbenchers are sending them on a suicide mission. “We can’t let the government shut down,” Rep. Peter King of New York said after the meeting. “We can’t be kamikazes and we can’t be General Custer.”
But tea party conservatives driving the strategy didn’t experience the 1990s shellacking. “I was still in high school,” Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, who is 56, quipped. “I’m convinced there were more things that caused our political difficulty than the shutdown.”
Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana wasn’t thinking about history. “The conservative base have been asking for this fight, so we’re going to give ‘em the fight,” he said.
The Republican followership dutifully embraced the language of conflict, referring to the “fight” they were instigating. Whipped McCarthy said he felt “excitement” in “going after the battle we’ve always been willing to wage.”
ABC News’ Jeff Zeleny asked whether the consequences of a shutdown for the Republicans would be the same as in the ’90s.
“There should be no conversation about shutting the government down,” Spokesman Boehner replied.
And there wouldn’t be, if the leadership hadn’t become the followership.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.