John Boehner survived his re-election as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday – barely – but if history is any guide Boehner’s grip on power is now truly tenuous and his time swinging the big gavel may be short.
New York Times numbers guru Nate Silver makes the case that Boehner’s near repudiation by the disenchanted in his own party, including Idaho’s Raul Labrador, may well be unprecedented in modern times. According to Silver, no Speaker dating back to the tenure of Washington’s Tom Foley in the 102 Congress has had as many defectors in his own party as Boehner did yesterday. Not even the GOP revolt against Newt Gingrich in 1997 matches the level of party disenchantment with Boehner.
Gingrich’s troubles – personal and political – lead to disastrous mid-term election results for Republicans in 1998 and he resigned. Prior to Newt you have to go all the way back to Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon in 1910 to find a Speaker that endured a similar revolt and again the precedent for Boehner isn’t all that good.
Up until 1910 Cannon was arguably the most powerful Speaker of the House ever. Uncle Joe, as he was not so affectionately known, had his power broken by a revolt of progressive Republicans in his own party and Democrats. In those days the Speaker also chaired the House Rules Committee and made committee assignments. Cannon – one of the House office buildings bears his name – was ruthless in exercising all that power. The anti-Cannon revolt changed the rules and, while Cannon survived as Speaker, he influence diminished rapidly and his autocratic ways helped contribute to a Democratic takeover of the House in the next election.
Eventually even the Wall Street Journal had enough of Joe Cannon saying in an editorial, “He is out of date, not because he is no longer young, but because he has ceased to be representative. He has stood between the people and too many things that they wanted and ought to have, and the fact that he has stood off some things they ought not to have won’t save him.”
Incidentally, the revolt against Cannon was was plotted by then-Rep. George W. Norris of Nebraska. The political courage and independence Norris displayed – he was later a distinguished U.S. Senator – caused John F. Kennedy to feature the Nebraskan as one of his “Profiles in Courage.”
But back to the current Speaker. What does Boehner do now? Does he attempt to placate the faction that nearly showed him the door and fight to death with Barack Obama over a debt ceiling increase? Or, does Boehner look at the history of Speakers who have sparked a revolt and conclude that his days are numbered?
If Boehner studies the history of the House, particularly the Gingrich and Cannon revolts, he might decide to thumb his nose at the dissidents and conclude that he has a very narrow window in which to try to do a really big and historic budget, tax reform and entitlement deal with Obama. With the short term deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” Boehner has shown that he’s willing to discard the idea that only legislation that can pass with GOP votes will make it to the House floor. Ironically his weakened position within his own party may make it more possible for Boehner to do a big deal with Democrats.
The ghost of Uncle Joe Cannon must be watching all this with interest.