Matt Taibbi: The Crying Shame of John Boehner
Matt Taibbi delivers another must-read feature on the newest, tear-stained face of the man carrying water for the slime of American society. John Boehner is a lazy, double-talking shill for corporate interests. So how’s he going to fare with the Tea Party?
John Boehner is the ultimate Beltway hack, a man whose unmatched and self-serving skill at political survival has made him, after two decades in Washington, the hairy blue mold on the American congressional sandwich. The biographer who somewhere down the line tackles the question of Boehner’s legacy will do well to simply throw out any references to party affiliation, because the thing that has made Boehner who he is — the thing that has finally lifted him to the apex of legislative power in America — has almost nothing to do with his being a Republican.
The Democrats have plenty of creatures like Boehner. But in the new Speaker of the House, the Republicans own the perfect archetype — the quintessential example of the kind of glad-handing, double-talking, K Street toady who has dominated the politics of both parties for decades. In sports, we talk about athletes who are the “total package,” and that term comes close to describing Boehner’s talent for perpetuating our corrupt and debt-addled status quo: He’s a five-tool insider who can lie, cheat, steal, play golf, change his mind on command and do anything else his lobbyist buddies and campaign contributors require of him to get the job done.
As for what that job is, here’s the thing: In this age of greed-enabling bailouts and rampaging Tea Parties and coast-to-coast voter rage toward the entire political process, Congress in particular now ranks as one of the single most unpopular political entities on earth. Recent polls show that only 13 percent of Americans approve of the job performance of their national legislature — which makes our elected representatives even less popular here at home than, say, Al Qaeda is in Pakistan. (Bin Laden and Co. scored an 18 percent approval rating not long ago.)
The reasons aren’t hard to figure. Voters are fatigued not only by the seemingly endless kinky-sex and corruption scandals emanating from Capitol Hill, but also by the increasingly infuriating fact that no matter which party is in power, the leadership inevitably borrows like dice addicts on the Vegas strip and uses the money to pay for huge Frankensteinian initiatives that bloat the size and power of the federal government, often without semblance of sense or plan. The underlying dynamic is bought-off congressmen ignoring real social problems and using the legislative process to construct massive perpetual handouts for their campaign-contributor sponsors. Both parties have now made the servicing of the giant handout machine their primary raison d’être — and it’s this perception, that Washington is occupied by an unbreakable bipartisan conspiracy of favor-churning hacks, that has inspired anti-Washington revolts like the Tea Party.
“Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act — practically any significant piece of legislation that came out of the Bush presidency, it was a joke,” says Chris Littleton, who heads a coalition of 58 Tea Party groups in Boehner’s home state of Ohio.
The anger of Tea Partiers like Littleton erupted when they suddenly realized that their elected leaders in Congress had developed a primary allegiance not to constituents back home or even to ideology, but to themselves and their own dissolute, pay-for-play, you-scratch-mine, I’ll-scratch-yours intramural bureaucratic calculus. Voters got mad when leaders covered up sex scandals, partied on corporate junkets when they should have been working on the public dime, wasted mountains of taxpayer money on political witch hunts instead of working to stave off another financial crisis or terrorist attack — and they got mad, especially, when congressional leaders stopped having the common decency to hide the lavish gifts funneled to them by their lobbyist pals in exchange for political favors, parading around in public with their goodies in hand without even caring how it looked.
The irony is, no one — no one— represents all of these bile-inspiring qualities better than John Boehner. His most striking achievement is that there’s a check mark next to his name on virtually every entry on the list of common public complaints about Congress. And yet, when the Republicans rolled back into the control of the House this past November on the strength of a nationwide Throw-the-Bums-Out movement, it was Boehner, the prototypical bum, who somehow clambered onto the congressional throne. It’s hard to imagine that in all of American political history there has been a more unlikely marriage than John Boehner and the pitchfork-wielding, incumbent-eating Tea Party, whose blood ostensibly boils at the thought of business as usual. Because John Boehner is business as usual, a man devoted almost exclusively to ensuring his own political survival by tending faithfully to the corrupt and clanking Beltway machinery. How? Let us count the ways.
From the very start, Boehner’s career has been a heartwarming tribute to the gentle spirituality and tender human connections that surround the experience of congressional service. Here’s how he got into the House in the first place: His predecessor, a white Republican named Donald “Buz” Lukens, got caught on camera talking with a black woman at a McDonald’s in Columbus, Ohio, about how he had slept with her teenage daughter. It came out later that Lukens, his negotiating skills honed by years of public service, had paid 40 bucks to the girl to have sex with him in his Columbus apartment.
Convicted of “contributing to the unruliness of a minor,” old Buz refused to resign his seat, and so John Boehner, a young plastics salesman (plastics!), took him on in the primary and won on a platform of restoring morals and ethics to the Congress. Boehner then joined up with a group of other freshmen congressmen, including God-humping Pennsylvanian Rick Santorum, and formed the so-called Gang of Seven. The group made names for themselves by giving sanctimonious speeches blasting Democratic congressional leaders for things like getting free haircuts at the House barbershop and free meals at the Senate restaurant. Shortly thereafter, Boehner ascended to a leadership role himself after helping co-author the “Contract With America,” and it wasn’t long before the man who swept into office in the shiny red underpants of an ethical crusader was creating his own peculiar ethics record.
Forget about free haircuts: Boehner was soon caught literally handing out checks from the tobacco lobby on the floor of the House. This was 1995; the House was voting to consider an end to federal subsidies of the tobacco industry, and Boehner, at the time the fourth-ranking Republican in the party hierarchy, went on the floor and handed out, by his own admission, “a half-dozen” donation checks from the tobacco lobby to various members.
Boehner only got busted when former-football-star-turned-GOP-congressman Steve Largent got wind of the check-passing and confronted Boehner about it. The fallout from the incident reveals the future House speaker at his absolute finest: While being interviewed by a television reporter about what he had done, Boehner with a straight face tries to turn the tables and present himself as an opponent of the practice.
“It’s a practice that’s gone on here for a long time that we’re trying to stop, and I know that I’ll never do it again,” he deadpans. Asked how he feels about the episode, he says, “It’s a bad practice. We’ve gotta stop it.” While he may have stopped handing out checks on the floor of the House, Boehner didn’t stop taking in lobbyist money and doing favors for his favorite industries. If you go back over his record, you’ll find one instance after another of Boehner standing up on this or that issue in a way that dovetails perfectly with a pile of money that happens to have been sent to his PAC or his campaign fund from the industry that stood to benefit from his position. For years, Boehner was one of the largest recipients of campaign donations from UPS; by an amazing coincidence, he was also the sponsor of a bill that would have allowed companies that pay into group pension plans — like UPS — to cut pension benefits for their own employees if another employer in the group went out of business. In another curious connection between campaign funding and political favors, Boehner received hundreds of thousands of dollars from for-profit colleges and the private-student-loan industry — and then sponsored laws that restricted the Department of Education from making less expensive government loans to students, pushing for federal subsidies for private colleges and trade schools.
In the Nineties, Boehner started weekly meetings with a group of lobbyists, originally known as “The Thursday Group,” that helped him develop close ties to companies like Citigroup, MillerCoors, UPS, Goldman Sachs, Google and R.J. Reynolds. And what does Boehner do with these lobbyists? Well, one thing we know he does is play golf — shitloads and shitloads of golf, which he apparently likes a lot more than, well, working. “Lazy” is how one former congressional aide describes Boehner’s work ethic. “Not the hardest worker,” said Joe Scarborough, former congressman and current MSNBC host. Congressional sources say that Boehner likes to knock off early, and that seems to square with his record, which reveals a real passion — for the links. He once went on 180 junkets in six years, most of them golf trips, and reportedly copped to playing 100 rounds a year at a time when he was collecting a six-figure salary, paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, to serve in Congress. His political action committee spent almost $83,000 on golf events in 2009, and over the past 18 months he has run up a $67,000 tab at the Ritz-Carlton golf resort in Naples, Florida. He flew on a corporate jet 45 times between 2000 and 2007, and took at least 41 other corporate-sponsored trips in the past decade.
When he wasn’t playing golf on some lobbyist’s tab, Boehner was often sleeping in an apartment rented to him by industry pals; for years he lived in a posh two-bedroom apartment owned by John Milne, a Beltway lobbyist who represents health-insurance companies and restaurant chains, two industries with keen interest in the work of the House Education and Workforce Committee chaired by Boehner.
More than anything else, though, it’s Boehner’s skill at raising cash that gives him his power base in the House. In his most recent re-election effort, political action committees donated $2.4 million to Boehner’s campaign fund, a staggering number for a House member. Boehner also raised some $44 million for other candidates.
Boehner’s fundraising prowess is so legendary that his own office uses it as a defense against character attacks. When MSNBC’s Scarborough caused a stir by accusing Boehner of being a light worker who’s at bars every night by 5 or 6 p.m., Boehner’s own spokesman Michael Steel shot back that “the only time [Boehner] is ‘around town’ these days is to raise money for our House Republican team. Thus far this year, he’s headlined more than 230 events and raised about $27 million.” At the time, the year was only half over — meaning, as one pundit pointed out, that Boehner was attending 1.25 fundraisers a day.
Look back over almost every controversial episode in the recent history of the U.S. Congress and you will find Boehner’s face appearing, Zelig-like, somewhere in the foreground. He was a key figure in the historic waste of time that was his and Newt Gingrich’s witch-hunting effort to get Bill Clinton impeached for lying about a blow job. He crossed the aisle to co-author the No Child Left Behind Act, a grotesque and grotesquely expensive expansion of federal power that helped jack up the federal education budget by an astounding 80 percent in the first five years of Bush’s presidency, then voted for the obscene Medicare Part D, a staggering $550 billion handout to the pharmaceutical industry — two portentous initiatives that helped turn the Republicans into the new party of big government.
Then, in the middle of the Bush years, the man who got into office thanks to Buz Lukens’ child-groping was enmeshed in his own sex scandal involving minors. When the news broke in September 2006 that Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican from Florida, had been sending sexually suggestive e-mails to a 16-year-old male page, it turned out that Boehner had been sitting on the information for months. Nancy Pelosi called for an immediate investigation into the Foley scandal, but Boehner blocked the resolution. Boehner later claimed that he had told then-Speaker Dennis Hastert about the Foley incident as soon as he found out — and promptly retracted his own alibi. The ensuing scandal nearly toppled Hastert, but Boehner survived mostly unscathed.
When he wasn’t busy protecting sex offenders, Boehner was gracing the hallowed grounds of the Capitol building with all the dignity and class of a boxing promoter, calling one legislative deal a “crap sandwich” and blasting an Obama tax compromise as “chicken crap” (an unfortunate choice of words, given that massive amounts of poultry waste have created an ecological disaster in his own district). Boehner is also an innovator in the loathsome new political phenomenon of men crying in public, co-owning mastery of the habit with screeching media dillweed Glenn Beck.
But beyond all of that, Boehner just represents a certain type of hollowly driven, two-faced personality unique to the Beltway. It’s not so much that he’s likely at any moment to start pounding his fist in favor of something that only yesterday he was denouncing as a threat to the American way of life (when benchmarks in Iraq were a Democratic idea, Boehner said they would ensure failure; when George Bush came out for them, he said they were “very important”). Nor is it so much that he’s prone to descending into hysterical hyperbole when the well-being of his campaign donors is threatened in even the vaguest way (he called the watered-down Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon,” with the ant in question being a financial crisis that wiped out over 40 percent of the world’s wealth). It’s more that . . . well, you have to spend a lot of time in Washington to know the type, but he’s the kind of guy who would step over his mother to score a political point.
This is true almost in a literal sense. One congressional aide tells a story that goes back many years. Boehner’s mother, Mary Ann, had just died. The aide, who at the time worked for a prominent Democratic congressman, suggested that his boss offer Boehner condolences. The Democrat, who had just heard that he was going to face an unexpected challenge from a state senator in his own re-election campaign, went along with the aide’s advice, despite the fact that he didn’t have a good relationship with Boehner.
The story goes like this: The Democrat approached Boehner, and said, “Hey, John, I’m sorry to hear about your mother.”
Boehner, not missing a beat, shot back: “And I’m sorry to hear you have an opponent.”
“That’s John Boehner in a nutshell,” the aide says now. “I mean, this is right after his mother died, and that’s where his head was at.”
Although there’s a bit of an omaertàeffect going on now that Boehner has risen to the speaker’s chair, there are certainly members, particularly on the Democratic side and particularly in the Ohio delegation, who aren’t shy about voicing opinions about Boehner’s Machiavellian bluntness. Marcy Kaptur, the Ohio congresswoman who garnered nationwide attention back in 2008 when she urged people facing foreclosure to stay in their homes, crossed paths with Boehner last year when he publicly campaigned for Kaptur’s opponent, Rich Iott, a lunatic whose weekend hobbies included dressing up in Nazi costumes in military re-enactments.
Iott denied that dressing up in the uniforms of the 5th SS Panzer Division meant that he sympathized with Nazi politics — but that didn’t mean there weren’t aspects of the Nazi regime that he could admire. “I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things,” Iott said. Yet Boehner quietly continued to campaign for Iott even after his beaming Nazi photos were blasted over the national airwaves. “Boehner came to the district to campaign for him through the back door,” says a Kaptur aide, “and left just as stealthily.”
Kaptur and her staff were mystified as to why Boehner would back a nutjob in an SS costume, especially when Kaptur was so far ahead in the polls. They could come up with only two explanations, both humorously nauseating. One was that it was a personal thing to tweak Kaptur, who had recently held a press conference criticizing a Boehner proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70. The other was that Boehner was milking the moronic Iott, the wealthy heir to a supermarket chain, for future campaign contributions.
“The fact that my opponent is among the wealthiest individuals not just in our region but in the nation leads me to believe Mr. Boehner, sadly, has his eye on the money that can be wrung out of him in the future,” says Kaptur.
Another Ohio Democrat, Steve Driehaus, clashed repeatedly with Boehner before losing his seat in the midterm elections. After Boehner suggested that by voting for Obamacare, Driehaus “may be a dead man” and “can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati” because “the Catholics will run him out of town,” Driehaus began receiving death threats, and a right-wing website published directions to his house. Driehaus says he approached Boehner on the floor and confronted him.
“I didn’t think it was funny at all,” Driehaus says. “I’ve got three little kids and a wife. I said to him, ‘John, this is bullshit, and way out of bounds. For you to say something like that is wildly irresponsible.'”
Driehaus is quick to point out that he doesn’t think Boehner meant to urge anyone to violence. “But it’s not about what he intended — it’s about how the least rational person in my district takes it. We run into some crazy people in this line of work.”
Driehaus says Boehner was “taken aback” when confronted on the floor, but never actually said he was sorry: “He said something along the lines of, ‘You know that’s not what I meant.’ But he didn’t apologize.”
Others in Washington see Boehner not so much as a bloodless partisan but as a clueless yutz, one who rose to power through a combination of accidents and bureaucratic inertia. “He’s just sort of like, ‘Oh, how did I get here?'” says one Democratic aide. “I think of him sort of as a big Saint Bernard to [new Republican Majority Leader] Eric Cantor’s yapping Chihuahua.” Boehner is the butt of a lot of jokes around the Hill, with his wino eyes, perennial Crayola-orange tan and phallic surname providing even members of his own party with endless comic material. (George Bush, famous for giving colleagues nicknames, called Boehner “Boner.”) His pseudo-acceptance speech on the night in November when Republicans retook the House was brilliant clown theater, a Wayne’s Worldversion of a right-wing political rally. At the very moment when millions of GOP voters were celebrating their ouster of the great socialist enemy Obama in the name of patriotism and liberty, Boehner was tearing up over what an awesome job he had finally scored for himself.
“I’ve spent my whole life…[chokes up]…chasing…[chokes up]…the American dream,” he sniffed. Becoming verklempt, Boehner waved his hands in a “No, I can’t go on” gesture, then went on anyway, as the crowd nonsensically chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
“I put myself through school, working…” — he choked up again — “every rotten job there was, and I poured my heart and soul into running a small business.” The words “small business” were too much for Boehner to take (remember, this is a man who went on 180 corporate junkets in six years, who took 45 flights on private jets), and so he cried again, putting a fist over his mouth and squeaking “Uha!” before pronouncing himself “ready to lead.” Boehner later repeated his election-night performance in a 60 Minutesinterview with Lesley Stahl, not just crying but weeping — he looked like a Girl Scout watching a puppy get pushed through a meat grinder — as he flogged his “I’ve been chasing the American dream my whole life” act.
The cryfests have left Democrats rolling their eyes. “He cries sometimes when we’re having a debate on bills,” grumbled Nancy Pelosi. “If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that. But when it comes to politics — no, I don’t cry.”
And while all prominent politicians live half their lives in front of the cameras and have more than a few verbal hiccups to live down, Boehner seems to have an almost Yogi Berra-ish talent for grammatical violence and logic-defying goofball platitudes. This past summer, in a sage observation that Jon Stewart was moved to call “the most profoundly retarded statement I’ve ever heard,” Boehner remarked that “the only way we’re going to get our economy going again and solve our budget problems is to get the economy moving.”
Adding to the perception of Boehner as more clown than tyrant is the widespread belief on the Hill that he doesn’t really have much, if any, control over his Republican members. More than one Democratic aide describes Boehner as a man who in private negotiations is more than willing to work with the other side, and will make promises of Republican cooperation — only to have his even crazier right-wing members, especially the hyperambitious Eric Cantor, go off the reservation with lunatic amendments and resolutions within hours after Boehner has promised that everyone would be cool. “He’s all talk,” says one Democratic aide with long experience working with Boehner. “He has no ability to control his base. Look at the TARP vote in ’08.”
The Troubled Asset Relief Program — the $700 billion bailout of the absurdly irresponsible megabanks that got us into the financial crisis — is a classic example of what Boehner is all about, expressing perfectly his tenuous position vis-à-vis the hard-line anti-spending Tea Party base that thrust him into power. Boehner, who over the course of his political career has collected nearly $4 million from the finance and insurance sectors, backed TARP from the start, summoning his full rhetorical arsenal to argue for the bill.
“None of us came here to have to vote for this mud sandwich!” he declared during the infamous vote on September 29th. “I didn’t come here to vote for bills like this!” Then he paused, took a $4 million gulp of air into his lungs, and pulled out all the stops to move his caucus — hilariously whipping out his Coffee Talk crying act on behalf of JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.
“So I ask all of you, both sides of the aisle,” he said, tearing up. “What’s in the best interest of our country? Not what’s in the best interest of our party! Not what’s in the best interest of our own re-election! What’s in the best interest of our country!” He choked back tears again. “Vote yes!”
The fact that Boehner supported TARP and No Child Left Behind and mega-handouts to the pharmaceutical industry and a range of other federal subsidies is hardly surprising, for this is what mainstream Washington politicians of both parties do — they take great buttloads of money from giant transnational companies, play golf with the CEOs of those same companies (“If someone I’ve gotten to know on the golf course comes into my office with a good argument,” Boehner once said, “I tend to want to listen”), and deliver taxpayer money back to their buddies when the need arises, or sometimes even when the need doesn’t arise. In this regard, Boehner has had a lot more in common with campaign-contribution-devouring Democrats like Chris Dodd and Harry Reid than he has with the Tea Party Republican voters he now ostensibly represents.
Boehner, in short, has for most of his career been a Bush Republican, i.e., a corporate schmoozer and a remorseless spender of taxpayer money for whom the notion of small government is just something to say when the cameras are on, or when the public money in question might go to poor people or immigrants or other such unlikely golfers. This was a fine way to be during the 2000s, back when America was still unfucked enough to enjoy a phony real estate boom and launch recreational wars of conquest in the Middle East — but in this new decade, post-Bush and post-crash, there is serious doubt on the Hill that a reflexive favor-churner like Boehner will be able to keep delivering Republican votes to lavish taxpayer money on his industry pals. Money is simply too tight now, and people are too pissed off.
Getting Republicans to line up for the permanent extension of Bush tax cuts is one thing — GOP congressmen will never have a problem slashing taxes for the Lloyd Blankfeins and Jamie Dimons of the world. But there are TARP-like votes ahead that will prove to be the real indicators of whether or not Boehner leads the Republican caucus, or whether the caucus will end up leading him. Sometime in the spring, for instance, the Republicans will likely be forced to choose between raising the debt ceiling or shutting down the government. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling was an explicit campaign issue for many Tea Party-backed candidates, and in the wake of the election, several prominent Republicans, including dingbat party chief Michael Steele, have vowed to oppose any move to raise the debt limit next year.
“It’s going to be really interesting to watch,” says one Democratic aide. “Is Boehner going to let the Tea Party shut the government down?”
Boehner, somewhat predictably, has indicated an unwillingness to do so. Reflecting the sentiment of veterans in both parties, he calls raising the debt ceiling a procedural no-brainer, something that simply has to be done. After all, the modus operandi for Bush Republicans like Boehner has always been to talk a good game on spending cuts, so long as the cuts were coming out of the food-stamp program or aid to Katrina victims — but they would never go so far, or be so radical, as to cut overall spending, which would require scaling back the industry handouts they have spent so much time putting together on the golf courses of America. The Republican attitude toward spending during the Bush years was probably best summarized by Alaska congressman Don Young, author of the infamous $223 million “bridge to nowhere” earmark, who scoffed at the idea that spending for Katrina should be paid for by cuts to his transportation pork programs. Proponents of such offsets, Young said, could “kiss my ear.”
So one can imagine how Boehner, who has funneled billions to big business over the years, would respond to the idea of shutting the government down. “Whether we like it or not,” the new speaker-in-waiting told reporters right after the election, “the federal government has obligations. We’re going to have to deal with it as adults.”
This may in fact be a rare instance of Boehner being right. After all, the best way to reduce spending is probably to cut down on future obligations, rather than simply to default on the old ones you already passed. But in this case, the speaker has the misfortune of coming from a state with a highly organized and politically aware Tea Party that has absolutely no interest in being lectured about what’s “adult” and what isn’t.
“They’re all worried the government would shut down,” says Littleton, the head of the Ohio Liberty Council. “I don’t care if it shuts down! So what?” Whether the Republican establishment led by Boehner can keep the support and approval of Tea Party leaders like Littleton over the next year or so is, right now, the most fascinating story line in all of American politics. The whole system of entrenched Beltway hackdom that Boehner represents is at stake. The GOP leadership largely succeeded this past fall in appropriating the political energy of the Tea Party for its own ends, pulling off a brilliant coup by using Tea Party rage to push through the long sought-after extension of the obscene Bush tax cuts. This was always going to be the model of how Republican Party hacks would deal with the Tea Party: Bash the living hell out of hated blue-state Gorgons like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, jack off the mob by incorporating the Tea Party’s Constitution-and-liberty rhetoric, hand the Tea Party those reforms that the GOP’s big campaign contributors want anyway (most notably, tax breaks for the rich and deregulation of big business), and then cough up a note from the doctor or some other lame excuse when the time comes to actually cut spending.
Of all the longtime Republican Beltway hacks who are now scrambling to find ways to throw enough sunshine on the Tea Party mob to keep their jobs, Boehner has been the most hilariously transparent. In yet another scene straight out of a screwball comedy — maybe it was an early hommageto the now-departed Leslie Nielsen — Boehner in November 2009 stood up in front of a crowd of Tea Partiers who had gathered to protest the upcoming Obamacare vote, and tried to stroke his audience by holding up a copy of the Constitution. Professing his love for the sacred document, Boehner pledged to “stand here with our Founding Fathers, who wrote in the preamble: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.'” The crowd was silent. Boehner had confused the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence.
Boehner’s irrepressible hackosity is a serious problem for the Republican establishment, which desperately needs a more convincing con man to stave off voter anger on the right. In this regard, the contrast between Boehner and Littleton, the Tea Party leader in Boehner’s home state, is interesting. The two men live in the same place, the small township of West Chester near Cincinnati, so Littleton is very familiar with Boehner. But Littleton’s opinion of the Republican establishment couldn’t be lower: It was precisely programs like the Medicare drug benefit bill and No Child Left Behind, programs he considers unacceptably wasteful and intrusive, that moved him to get into politics. “These were all Republican programs,” Littleton says. “If you look at Republican congressmen from Ohio, they all voted for this stuff.”
What’s interesting is that the survival of the hack political class that Boehner represents now depends almost entirely on their ability to neutralize grass-roots leaders like Littleton — and the word “leader” here is used in the real sense of the word. While Boehner often negotiates for a Republican delegation that winds up rejecting the compromises he reaches, Littleton, when I speak with him, strikes me in exactly the opposite way — I feel very aware that I am talking to someone with a lot of political power, who represents quite a lot of actual human beings.
For obvious reasons, this is a real problem for the Republican Party establishment, which would forfeit any ability to squeeze the Goldmans and Citigroups of the world for golf vacations the instant they stop being able to deliver the votes for cushy spending bills and deregulatory goodies — votes that are now, at least in part, controlled by people like Littleton. This is why in some states the Republican Party fought so fiercely against the Tea Party; in Ohio, the party spent nearly $1 million campaigning to stop Tea Party candidates from assuming jobs at the state level. “They hate us more than they hate the left,” says Littleton. “The left’s just an enemy. We present a legitimate threat to them.”
How do you get rid of a threat like that? Littleton recounts some of the ways the party has tried. One tack was dazzling the hayseeds with splendor and bullshit. During a visit to Washington, for instance, Littleton was meeting with Republican officials to go over “nitty-gritty” stuff like monetary policy, when an aide suddenly stopped the session. He was surprised, he told Littleton, that they were bothering with all this serious stuff — he thought the Tea Partiers just wanted to meet famous politicians. The aide’s attitude, Littleton recalls, was: “I thought we could just throw you a bone, and bring in my rock star, and you’re just really so impressed by him that you’re going to smile and hug him and go out and do whatever we need you to do.” Another time, when the Tea Party was making noise about a farm subsidy, a staffer for a prominent Republican congressman simply called Littleton up and asked him to be quiet. “Hey, would you mind leaving that issue alone?” the staffer said. “The congressman would really appreciate it — we work with a lot of farmers.” Littleton was amazed that Republican leaders seemed to think the Tea Party was engaged in a collaborative effort to keep Republicans in office, but this is just the way things are done inside the Beltway. Everything’s negotiable, everyone’s pals with everyone else, and the only thing that matters is keeping the right people in office.
Littleton has also been approached with offers of corporate funding from the energy interests as well as FreedomWorks, the much-publicized national umbrella organization led by Dick Armey. While many Tea Parties across the country have been happy to accept such largesse, Littleton was unimpressed. When FreedomWorks offered to set up a rally in Ohio during the heat of the election season, it turned out that Armey only wanted to get a crowd together to hawk his new book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto. “We’re here in trench warfare,” Littleton says, laughing, “and they’re on a book tour.”
This is where Boehner comes in: He represents the last stand of the Bush Republicans against this rising tide of public anger. The GOP establishment want the energy of the Tea Party, but they don’t want to have to work for it. They’re hoping — and they have plenty of reasons to have this hope — that the vast majority of Tea Partiers will be dazzled by their new status in Congress, or be willing to be bought off with corporate money, or be just plain dumb enough to fall for whatever pulled-out-of-the-ass phony reform rhetoric that guys like Boehner come up with, instead of making real changes to the way Congress does business. In a hilarious example of the former, Boehner with a straight face recently announced that he would push to cut committee budgets and member allowances by five percent, for an anticipated savings of — cue the clueless Dr. Evil laugh — $30 million. “It likely would be one of the first votes we cast,” Boehner declared proudly, failing to recognize that paying for trillion-dollar bailouts and $900 billion tax breaks by cutting $30 million at a time is a little like planning a hostile takeover of IBM with a stack of Rite Aid coupons. That’s not government; it’s stand-up comedy. As for the sweeping changes that the Tea Party is looking for — Littleton’s personal litmus test is deep cuts in both defense spending and Social Security — it’s virtually unimaginable that Boehner will push for such a radical agenda. When Littleton met with party leaders after the election and asked what programs they are willing to cut, he was brushed aside. “We’re going to be discussing that in April,” he was told.
“I thought to myself, ‘You campaigned on an entire platform of cutting government spending, and you don’t know what you’re going to be cutting until April?'” Littleton pauses. “I don’t trust these guys — whether it’s Boehner or anybody else.”
It was good times in America for a while. A man could wait for his local congressman to get caught diddling a 16-year-old, make a run for his seat, and then spend the next 20 years getting hustled around the world on golf junkets and showered with campaign checks and apartments and corporate-jet flights, and nobody would utter so much as a peep of protest. Congress was an easy job for any man with a nice fairway stroke, a limited moral compass and a keen sense of bureaucratic loyalty; it was half an acting job and half clerical work, taking orders from industry captains and selling the resultant giveaway bills to your voters as principled blows for Adam Smith, the flag and the free-enterprise system. Back when America was still a feared international bully that was flush with borrowed Saudi and Chinese cash and could stand to blow a few hundred extra billion in public funds every year on budget-padding deals — back in the Bush years — John Boehner was the perfect candidate for congressional leadership, a lifetime company man who didn’t give a shit about most Americans but could shed tears on national television on behalf of Jamie Dimon’s bottom line.
Things are different now. America is so broke, there’s no longer really any money in the Treasury to give away — the job of overseeing corporate handouts that used to belong to the leaders of Congress has now moved to the Federal Reserve, which itself is so broke that it has to invent dollars out of thin air before it can give them away to influential billionaires. This leaves congressional leaders with nothing to do but their ostensible jobs — i.e., fixing the country’s actual problems — and few of the current leaders have any experience with that, Boehner being a prime example. The new speaker represents an increasingly endangered class of Beltway jobholders who know how to raise money and get elected, but not much beyond that. He now finds himself the party’s last line of defense against millions of angry voters who, for the first time in recent memory, are at least attempting to watch what Congress is up to. The tee times are over.
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