Speaker Boehner: Read the Tea Leaves

By Chris Carlson

The table just may start to be set for Idaho’s Second District Congressman, Mike Simpson, to become the next Speaker of the House of Representatives. Yes, the split in the House Republican Caucus started to show when one member cast a vote for Idaho’s 1st District Congressman, Raul Labrador, and Labrador himself refused to vote. Rep. Labrador, however, even though the darling of the Tea Party types, will never be Speaker.

Mike Simpson, on the other hand, has a real shot in part because he has been a loyal lieutenant to Speaker Boehner. One can predict that if it becomes clear to the Speaker that he no longer enjoys the confidence of his Caucus and should step aside, he will still have a sizable contingent of loyalists. Boehner could no doubt direct these loyalists to vote for one of his key advisors, Mike Simpson.

It not only takes skill to maneuver successfully to ride herd on the incredibly divisive House, it also takes luck and a talent for being perceived to be the right person at the right time and the right place to become the next Speaker. Simpson, however, over his long career has demonstrated both skill and luck.

Make no mistake, Boehner has been mortally wounded. He just barely survived a major in-Caucus rebellion over his bumbling, lackluster inability to draw and quarter the president in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. The fact that the split within became so obvious is in all probability an unmistakable sign his days are numbered. He clearly cannot deliver a majority of his caucus on anything, which the Democrats smell, as do the House members of the Tea Party.

Simpson is thought to command the respect of all the factions within the Republican caucus in part because he is a good listener, a shrewd analyst and a savvy negotiator who is not afraid to compromise in order to achieve consensus and move forward.

There’s an old political saying about he who intends to kill the King ought to make sure they’ve done so. In this case, the challenge initially has failed but Boehner may be a member of the walking dead. It may take time to recognize his legs have been cut out from under him. But not by Simpson. Ever the loyalist he is not about to knife a friend and scramble over the body. That is another point for him.

Another attraction is that while second in line for Presidency, the House Speaker has rarely ever ascended to the Presidency. It is not a stepping stone. In fact the only two Speakers of the U.S. House to ever make it were James K. Polk and James A. Garfield. Both were considered by historians to have been successful Speakers. Garfield was a much beloved Member of Congress. Elected President in 1880, he never was able to fulfill his promise as he was shot by an assassin within months of taking office. Incompetent doctors helped him to survive the bullet but he couldn’t survive their incompetent care.

Thus, most speakers are truly creatures of the House and not considered today to be potential presidents, or aspirants. Some Idahoans are familiar with the only westerner to ever become speaker, Rep. Tom Foley from Spokane, who served from 1989 until 1994, when he along with dozens of other Democratic office holders were swept out of office by the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans and their “Contract with America.”

The son of a Spokane judge, a graduate of both Gonzaga Prep and Gonzaga University, Foley began his political career as a staff person for one of Washington state’s “gold dust twins,” Senator Henry M. Jackson. Foley was blessed with much good luck during his career not the least of which was running as a Democrat in 1964 when LBJ received a tidal wave of support over Barry Goldwater, winning in a landslide which swept a number of congressional candidates into office with him.

As often happens, like Simpson is now, Foley was in the right place when events broke his way. A loyal majority leader to Speaker Jim Wright of Texas, the Democratic caucus turned to him upon Wright’s resignation over “forced sales” of his book to various interest groups. On Election Day in November 1994 I was visited by Solveig Torvik, a reporter for the Seattle P-I, who though born in Norway had immigrated with her LDS parents to Blackfoot where she grew up.

Solveig was stunned when told the Speaker was going to lose, that the Fifth District would be only the second district in the nation’s entire history to turn out a sitting Speaker of the House. The first time was back in 1864. There were two reasons:

1) The Speaker defended the indefensible, the fact that Congress almost always exempted itself from the laws it passes and expects citizens to follow. When asked about this practice, the Speaker gave a long-winded philosophical defense of why this was actually a good idea. His challenger, George Nethercutt, sensing the resentment of a small businessman who has to obey an endless set of rules enforced by OSHA, or the ADA, or EPA, simply said Congress should live by the rules it expects others to live by. The Speaker never quite grasped how much this reflected a tin political ear and how much support it cost him.

2) Failure to respect verisimilitude in a campaign television ad. In this case the Speaker let his big-time media consultant convince him to put on the red shirt, open-neck, jeans and a vest, take paddle in hand and paddle a canoe through a scenic setting. Voters would see that the Speaker was just like them, a creature of the rural areas of eastern Washington, a man who loved the out-of-doors, and was at home in the west. Except those with a discerning eye picked up on the Speaker’s awkwardness which manifested itself in anything but looking serene, secure and comfortable. Folks instantly knew it was a phony, staged ad and they took exception to it, as they should have.

There’s a lesson in Foley’s downfall for both Speaker Boehner and Mike Simpson if he becomes the next Speaker: to survive one has to keep their ear to the ground and always listen carefully to their constituency, whether it is a caucus or a district’s voters. They always have the final word.

A native of Kellogg, journalist Chris Carlson pens his column from his retirement home near Medimont in Northern Idaho. He is a former teacher and was press secretary to Gov. Cecil Andrus.