What’s the point of being Speaker Boehner?

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A conversation with Salon political writer Steve Kornacki about House Speaker John Boehner's job, and his surprising approach to hurricane relief.

Josh: How much longer can Boehner do this? He has the Northeast Republicans off his back, now that he scheduled those votes for the Hurricane Sandy aid. But how long can it last before something gives?

Steve: I still think he's safe for now, and that the real question is how much longer he's willing to put up with living the life of a powerless House speaker. With the debt ceiling still to be resolved, I just don't see an incentive for Eric Cantor or whoever to move now. They'd immediately put themselves in the same impossible situation Boehner has been in since January 11.

Josh: It must be a grim existence. I don't imagine his use of the word "nightmare" on the night of the fiscal-cliff vote was accidental. And I also don't rule it out that he spiked the Sandy-relief vote simply because he was fed up emotionally, and didn't feel like passing yet another bill having to rely on Democratic votes. I haven't heard a better explanation.

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Steve: Oh yeah, I think that was a big part of his motivation—not feeling like it, and also not knowing if he could do it, and wondering if it would prompt a revolt before the speaker vote on Jan. 3. To me, the thing that saves him is House Republicans' post-2010 reliance on deadlines/hostage-taking for leverage.

So we got through this, but the debt ceiling is on the table now, and then after that a continuing resolution to fund the government. As long as there's one of these on the horizon, why do you want this job if you're Eric Cantor? You won't be able to go in and really negotiate with Obama, and nothing you do will ever really be sufficient to make House conservatives happy. You just become Boehner, because you know that for all of the posturing and all of the public exasperation about how unreasonable Obama is being, you do ultimately have to do something to avert a default or a government shutdown. But nothing that you can do to avoid either of those things will pass an Obama-era conservative purity test.

Josh: But when does that ever change? Surely Cantor doesn't think that's going to stop being the case anytime soon. Can he stay in this position indefinitely?

Steve: Yeah, I really don't know. And doubt he knows, either. Not sure what the precedent here is. I mean, if you play it out four years and there's a G.O.P. president after Obama, maybe that's the time. Or if somehow the G.O.P. fever, as Obama calls it, breaks, then he could move. Or if at some point here a real long-term deal that takes these deadlines off the table is reached. Then he could move. Maybe that's the most likely.

The other thing is, Dave Wasserman wrote a really good analysis of the election results recently. Basically, he makes the case that we're now living in an era when Democrats have a real edge in the presidential race and in the Senate, because their coalition is now big enough to win statewide races. But their coalition is also packed in to cities and metro areas—leaving the G.O.P. with a real edge on the House side, one that can only be disrupted temporarily by anti-G.O.P. waves like we had in '06 and '08.

The stat that jumped out at me was that Obama actually won 200 FEWER counties in '12 than Dukakis did in '88. That's how tightly packed the Democratic coalition now is. So what we have is a House map that elects R's from districts that do not reflect the demographic changes that re-elected Obama (and a Dem majority in the Senate). This could be the norm for a long time.

Josh: How does that last part affect the thinking of an ambitious number-two on the Republican side? Is the idea that if he waits he'll have a more stable majority to work with?

Steve: That's what I think any of the non-hardcore true-believers (the ones who do at some level recognize that a debt default would be catastrophic for the country) would conclude. As for the real true-believers, they couldn't put the votes together to win, I don't think.

Josh: Do you ever have any doubts about which of those categories Cantor belongs in?

Steve: Maybe I'm giving him too much credit for being smart, but I feel pretty confident he's in the first camp. But also very ambitious, so he has to hide it as much as humanly possible. And if he was speaker in this climate, he wouldn't be able to hide it.

Josh: Is it at all surprising to you that Cantor, of all people, emerged as the House Republican good cop in the scuffle over the canceled Sandy-relief vote, with everyone from Chris Christie to Pete King to Chuck Schumer going out of his way to distinguish Cantor from Boehner as they raged against the decision? Is there more to this than just Boehner blocking that initial vote?

Steve: I don't know—wondering the same thing. Broadly speaking, my guess is that Boehner saw Sandy aid mainly as an intra-conference headache and that Cantor was looking at it as donor maintenance. And that put Cantor on the right side, as far as those officials were concerned.

Josh: I guess there's no more cost to anyone right now in being nice to Cantor right now than there is in being critical of Boehner. 

Obviously Schumer is doing his usual concerned-for-my-Republican-colleague shtick when he says Boehner's a nice man but I wish he could get those other guys under control but I think there's more than a grain of truth to it this time, when he's basically just saying Boehner acted the way he did because he's "under pressure." The speaker is in a bad position, and it's showing.