National Review‘s Robert Costa has a behind-the-scenes report on Speaker Boehner’s failed effort to get his caucus to pass his “Plan B,” an entirely political, ultimately feeble attempt to confuse the issue and insulate Republicans from incurring the public’s wrath in the event that we go off the cliff. It’s a tragicomic read that, in its weird way, reminds me a bit of Death of a Salesman:
Boehner’s speech to the group was short and curt: He said his plan didn’t have enough support, and that the House would adjourn until after Christmas, perhaps even later. But it was Boehner’s tone and body language that caught most Republicans off guard. The speaker looked defeated, unhappy, and exhausted after hours of wrangling….
There were audible gasps of surprise, especially from freshman lawmakers who didn’t see the meltdown coming. Boehner’s friends were shocked, and voiced their disappointment so the speaker’s foes could hear. “My buddies and I said the same thing to each other,” a Boehner ally told me later. “We looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and just groaned. This is a disaster.”
Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, a burly former car dealer, stood up and urged the conference to get behind the speaker. “How the hell can you do this?” Kelly asked, according to several people inside the room. A few of Boehner’s critics told Kelly to stop lecturing, but most were silent. They had been battling against “Plan B” all week, and quite suddenly, they had crippled the leadership. Boehner sensed the tension, requested calm, and then exited.
I suppose we can cast Congressman Kelly in the role of Happy Loman. It’ll be considerably harder to find the right fit for Biff, however; it would require someone in Boehner’s caucus to love him so deeply the affection curdles into hate. And as the Costa report makes clear, not only do none of Boehner’s fellow Republicans love him — they can’t even muster a real, red-blooded, American hate.
He’s just there. Sad and downcast and muttering Hallmark pieties like the serenity prayer to himself before slouching off to wherever he goes to knock ‘em back and pretend to be Tip O’Neill. Imagine it, being a Speaker whose caucus actually did as it was told. Must’ve been bliss; and at the very least O’Neill didn’t have to deal with Cantor, breathing down his neck. Cantor was probably in diapers at the time, in fact…
Here’s the thing about Plan B and its ignominious defeat: for all the drama of a Party at war with itself, paralyzed by a significant minority of hardcore conservatives whose response to November’s election is to pretend it never happened, the dissolution of a fiscal cliff deal has been stubbornly predictable. As I’ve written before, John Boehner was always a Speaker, alone. Or at least alone enough. The Tea Party faction has neither lost its veto power nor its preferred stance of total intransigence.
Unless and until he had an answer to the Tea Party’s nihilism, any Grand Bargain Boehner could dream up with the president was the lawmaking equivalent of fantasy football. It looked good on paper, but it didn’t exist. Not really. And with his decision to throw up his hand and tell Democrats that the fiscal cliff was a YP, not an MP, Boehner seems to have finally accepted this existential truth of contemporary American politics.
If only the president would do the same.