Bob Schwartz

Tag: John Boehner

Still Waiting for 21st Century American Politics

Pelosi McConnell Reid Boehner

We are still waiting for the emergence of 21st century politics in America.

The first part of this may seem simplistic and overgeneralized. The second part may seem silly. But this is about politics, so what can you expect?


Many Republicans seem to be stuck at some point in the 19th century—not just Robber Barons and the Gilded Age, but certainly that. Many Democrats seem to be stuck with some version of 20th century progressivism—not a bad thing, by any means, but constructed in a different world under different circumstances.


Forget the bourbon and beer political summits. The President, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Nancy Pelosi should take advantage of D.C.’s new legalized marijuana and share the peace pipe. The scripts would fall away, they would be channeling some different higher power. (Question: Which of these, besides Obama, has actually smoked pot before? Answer: All of them, even if it was just a puff, even if it was just a dare, even if they didn’t inhale.)

Music and food might be issues. Not knowing their individual tastes, and if the point is to get to a better and more creative, communal, and enlightening space, Bob Marley could do the trick. Shoulders swaying, spirits lifting, to the heavenly prayer of One Love.

Food? Whatever’s in the fridge.


As I said, simplistic, overgeneralized, and silly. But if politics keeps trying to recreate some ideal of a bygone era, country, or world, two centuries ago, one century ago, fifty years ago, it won’t work. Yes, of course there are timeless values that deserve our allegiance. But these are always set in temporal realities. Being current means more than just being “relevant” or using the latest technologies to drive your message home or appealing to ascendant populations. It means that however much you love the way it was, just inhale, exhale, and breathe the air of 2014, 2016, and beyond. Because, politicians, it’s not your parents’ air—it’s not even yours.

History’s Goat

John Boehner
If, as expected, the government shutdown is protracted, bleeding into the debt ceiling crisis, the cool eyes of history will judge Speaker of the House John Boehner to be the goat. Not the President, not extremist Republicans in the House, not Ted Cruz or anyone in the Senate. Almost everyone on both sides of the aisle either knows it is John Boehner’s fault or believes in any case that he will be blamed and take the fall.

It is his responsibility because he could have brought a “clean” Continuing Resolution to a vote in the House—and he still can. All indications are that enough Republicans would vote for it—and still would. This would not solve any other crises or disagreements, but all those could then proceed under the simple everyday circumstance of the government running. That would be a good thing by almost all lights.

The reasons John Boehner doesn’t do this are many and complex. He is appropriately loyal to what was, and will hopefully be again, a great political party. The demands on his Speakership are as difficult as any in modern history; it is possibly a job that no one could do perfectly or even well. The extremist Republicans in the House have not so much discovered political extortion—an ancient practice—as fallen in love with it, become obsessed with it. They have aimed their threats at the nation, the President, and reasonable members of their own party in primary after primary.

The extremist threat against John Boehner is not that he will lose his secure Ohio House seat—he won’t—or even that he will lose his Speaker post—he probably will, if they can find anybody else courageous or stupid enough to try to “lead” these House Republicans. The threat hanging over John Boehner, a man who loves his country and his Congress, is that he will be humiliated by failing miserably, rather than just not succeeding.

John Boehner is making a classic mistake, one that competitors in all fields, including sports, business and politics, should know. To win, you have to play aggressively and by the rules, but you have to play to win according to your best inner guidance. Because when you play not to lose, you already have.

Right now, John Boehner knows he isn’t winning, but he could, if he would just end this shutdown. Instead, he has retreated to a haven of rhetoric and finger-pointing that he knows is not right. That’s why every evaluation of his performance, even by some friends and moderate Republicans, begins with “He is a nice guy, a good man, but…”

Right now, whatever the consequences, he could do the right thing, pay whatever price there is to pay, and be a hero. But right now, and in the historian’s rear view mirror, that isn’t how it looks.

The Most Significant Shutdown Front Pages

El Diario

Republicans should pay close attention to the front pages of America’s newspapers this morning, the first day of the government shutdown prompted by their obsessive opposition to Obamacare.

Most papers carry some version of “shutdown” or “gridlock,” with photos of John Boehner and Harry Reid, or John Boehner and Barack Obama (it’s all about John Boehner).

But the big story on two front pages is the opening of the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges. These two papers just happen to be two of the largest Spanish-language dailies—El Diario in New York (above) and La Opinion in Los Angeles (below).

La Opinion

Why is this significant for Republicans? Because they claim (but in their heart of hearts still may not believe) that here in the second decade of the 21st century, they can’t become an American national party without broad Latino support. That is true, but the fact is that a large part of that constituency is uninsured and is deeply interested in the benefits of Obamacare. This is reflected in those front pages. But the Republicans are sworn enemies of Obamacare, so committed that they are willing to put people out of work to do it. How can the Republicans be a party attractive to Latinos under that circumstance?

The answer is that they can’t. It is a circle Republicans cannot square. And no matter how much lip service they pay to underserved populations, everything they do says something else. Actions, like front pages, speak louder than words.

John Boehner and the Judgment of History

John Boehner
John Boehner says he isn’t worried that compromising on taxes will result in his losing his job as House Speaker. It is a matter of principle.

He may be telling the truth, but it doesn’t matter.

When asked whether Americans will blame the Republicans for the stalemate, his answer isn’t that he doesn’t care, but that it would be wrong. President Obama and the Democrats are to blame, even if polls say that many people believe otherwise.

That doesn’t matter either.

The question isn’t whether Boehner cares about keeping his job (which he does) or whether he cares that many Americans blame him and the Republicans (which he does).

The question is about history.

Republicans have for quite a while seemed to be unconcerned about the judgment of history. There’s a practical reason for this: people vote, not history. And most people aren’t that interested in history. Anyway, history is often equivocal, so in those moments when people do care, history can be spun to say almost anything.

But, for example, history continues to be a problem for the Republicans and their most historic President. The principles of and lessons from Lincoln are not always congruent with current GOP practice and rhetoric. This is how Southern Republicans during the Civil Rights era didn’t just come to distance themselves from the Great Emancipator; they fled the party.

History is turning on the Republicans. An entire two-term Presidency—eight years of George W. Bush—has had to be nearly buried so that the party could move on. The most recent financial misstep, the 2011 debt ceiling debacle, looked at first like it could be blamed on an ineffectual President. But history has stepped in. Obama’s leadership has been established and electorally endorsed, And now that event looks like a dark mirror of this moment—a mirror featuring John Boehner’s face.

When the movie of this moment is made, the question for Boehner is who he wants to be. He’s not going to be Lincoln, he’s not going to be Thaddeus Stevens. The way it looks now, he may be one of those supporting characters, a middling Congressional leader serving as an antagonist, helping to move the action along by opposing it. He is a decent man, he may yet keep his Speakership, and the country may yet, hopefully, avoid another crisis. But history won’t care about any of that. It is ruthless in its judgment, and John Boehner still has time to sway it.