Obama’s Big and Quiet Transformation

John Boehner
John Boehner; drawing by John Springs

Representative Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a Republican, from his state’s very northeasternmost corner up by Lake Erie and Pennsylvania, is loyal to Speaker John Boehner, his fellow Ohioan, and—by today’s standards—a moderate conservative who has made his disdain for those to his right clear. He’s called members of the Tea Party “knuckle-draggers…that hate taxes.” In December, when the Speaker lacked the votes in his own House Republican caucus to support his “Plan B,” a proposal to limit tax increases sharply, after negotiations with the White House had broken down, LaTourette chalked the failure up to “the same forty, fifty chuckleheads that all year…have screwed this place up.”

First elected in 1994, LaTourette came in with the Gingrich Revolution and was seen as a conservative in that era; but time and fervor have made his views seem a bit quaint—he’s big on transportation and actually appears to support a certain level of taxation to fund it. Back in the summer, he abruptly announced his retirement, specifically deploring his party’s drift toward unreason.

So it was shocking to hear him of all people, on New Year’s Day, after the Senate voted 89–8 to pass compromise legislation to avoid the fiscal cliff, sniff that the bill was passed by “sleep-deprived octogenarians” and that “the Republicans who voted for it must have been drunk” (the bill passed around 2:30 AM on January 1). Washington is not nearly as obsessed with rank and politesse as it was a generation ago, but even in our coarser era, it was astounding to hear a House member speak of senators that way.

The people who were really drunk were the House Republicans, besotted with their idea of themselves as the exterminating angels of public-sector excess, as the protectors of the rich against the “moocher” class. After the lopsided Senate vote, when only five GOP senators voted no, many observers on New Year’s morning expected relatively easy passage of the Senate bill in the House. By early afternoon, though, it was clear that it wouldn’t be easy at all. Eric Cantor, the minority leader, let it get out that he was against the package—a blunt reminder to Boehner that Cantor was ready to lead a revolt against the deal and, possibly, against Boehner himself when the new Congress convened two days later to vote for Speaker.

In the end, of course, pressure was so great—as the afternoon progressed even the anchors on the Fox News channel were saying that if the country went over the cliff, House Republicans would be solely blamed for any resultant turmoil—that Boehner permitted the vote that night. He had, up to that point, abided by the so-called “Hastert Rule,” an unwritten edict dreamed up by House Republicans a decade ago holding that they would permit floor votes only on legislation that had the backing of a majority of the GOP caucus—“a majority of the majority.”

But he…

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