Yesterday Speaker John Boehner, right after acknowledging the video camera in the room, proceeded to blast Republicans afraid to vote on immigration. In a high-pitched mock whine, he impersonated his colleagues: “Ohhhh. Don’t make me do this! Ohhhh. This is too hard!”
He also said that “I think we should” vote on immigration reform this year, though he wasn’t sure if they would because “the appetite amongst my colleagues for doing this is not real good.”
No repeat of the bogus charge that President Obama is at fault because “there’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws.”
Some on the left are scoffing, because it is Boehner who controls what bills reach the floor. For example, FireDogLake’s Jon Walker calls Boehner “the Real Coward.”
But it’s always a mistake to analyze a Boehner quote in isolation. He often swerves between antagonizing Democrats and Republicans, between issuing ultimatums and then moving the goal posts, between letting the Tea Party tail wag the dog and then yanking the leash. (As I’ve said before, he’s kind of a genius.)
Why does he do this? Because he’s not a pundit or a professor. He’s not trying to making a coherent intellectual argument. He’s a legislator. He’s a negotiator. He says what he thinks he needs to say to get to the deal he wants.
Sometimes he’s draws a far right line to keep his ranks unified and see how much he can eventually get. Sometimes he throws an elbow to some on his side of aisle, to weaken their leverage and give other Republicans confidence they can survive without kissing Heritage’s ring. He zigs and zags to keep everyone off balance, dampening the threat of a party split while also ensuring he doesn’t have to give away the store to the Democrats in any final deal.
With this latest missive, he purposefully robs Republicans of the ability to pin any immigration failure on Obama and the Democrats. Clearer-thinking Republicans probably already realized that wasn’t going to happen anyway. But some might have thought Boehner’s earlier comments criticizing Obama’s trustworthiness was part of a shift-the-blame strategy, when in reality, that was likely just a little red meat to keep the base at bay before the winter and spring congressional primary season.
Conservative Lee Stranahan calls Boehner’s move an “epic leadership fail” that “just handed Democrats a PR victory.” But it’s only a fail if it fails to achieve its purpose. And Boehner’s purpose is different than Stranahan’s.
Why does understanding Boehner’s motives matter? Because immigration won’t happen without pressure being put on the system.
It’s hard for Boehner to justify taking up an issue that threatens GOP unity without a compelling political reason. But when Democrats and liberals take an overly cynical view of Boehner’s sincerity and an overly pessimistic view of what Republicans are capable of doing, they sap grassroots enthusiasm and suffocate momentum.
The Speaker said he wants to vote on immigration this year. Try believing it.