Unless you watched the entire proceedings on C-SPAN, it’s likely you missed what I’m dubbing The Kiss. It happens right before the 2-hour mark of the opening session of the 113rd Congress. Most of the major news sources edited out the moment, and as a result, viewers see a stern looking John Boehner barely acknowledging Nancy Pelosi.
The C-SPAN video shows the full Pelosi introduction of Boehner, during which she calls him a “proud son of Ohio” and a “man of faith” who “earned respect on both sides of the aisle.”
Considering the raucous and divisive nature of the 112th Congress, Pelosi’s welcome is warm, gracious and conciliatory. She quotes Lincoln in wishing that the members of the House will find common ground, “touched by the better angels of our nature.”
As she presents the People’s Gavel to Boehner, she takes his hand and congratulates him. At this moment, Boehner gavel in hand, kisses her on the cheek. It happens in a flash.
I imagine the display of affection disturbs the media-crafted story of antipathy between the representatives of both parties. There are likely some who would consider the Speaker’s touching kiss akin to betrayal. So it’s no wonder that most of America did not see The Kiss.
The moment caused me to reconsider my evaluation of Boehner and the closing fiscal cliff fiasco of the 112th Congress. I am approaching the possibility that John Boehner pierced himself with the double-edged blade of political gamesmanship.
RELATED C-SPAN VIDEO:
Before I can explore the idea that Boehner was a martyr, a couple of premises need pointing out.
- President Obama understands and makes good use of social media.
- The President is the President and owns a fair amount of leverage by that fact.
- Obama and John Boehner both play the political game.
- The GOP and its reps in Congress, especially the House, have a battered reputation.
- John Boehner can anticipate the actions of his party.
Each of these factors plays into my scenario.
The Games They Play
Suspend your notions for a few minutes about the callous, inept John Boehner, and focus on the premises above. Then consider this scenario.
Obama and Boehner meet in the Oval office to discuss fiscal cliff matters. Reportedly, their conversation is verging on a deal. Then Boehner returns to the House and announces Plan B, seemingly a move that rebuffs Obama and dashes all hope for a resolution. What happens? Plan B is resoundingly trounced.
Uproar commences. Americans denounce Boehner; they trash the GOP; outrage and vitriol fill the air. Obama’s profile surges. He becomes the politician who reached out to the other side, who reportedly conceded some of his demands, and agreed to a compromise, only to be stabbed in the back by the evil Boehner.
Now the craft of gamesmanship works both ways. Obama is just as fluent as Boehner in this. Perhaps even more the pro as social media goes into overdrive with the failure of Plan B. The loud outrage of America is called leverage.
Let’s assume Boehner is complicit in this failed negotiation. Let’s assume the Speaker knows his party. Let’s assume that he recognizes the GOP will never pass the deal crafted by him and the President. What options remain?
How about a contrived failure called Plan B? How about the reliance of American outrage? How about a rock-and-a-hard place scenario that forces the hand of the House GOP?
Think this kind of strategizing doesn’t go on? Well then. you underestimate their craftiness.
The Humbled Speaker
Eventually, the House voted to temporarily avert the fiscal cliff by accepting a package devised by the Senate. Obama taps VP Joey Biden, who rescues the economic fate of the country with his last minute cajoling and bargaining. The House GOP, sufficiently chastised by the nation, give in. For the White House it’s a big win/win. It’s a knockout. The President and Vice President begin their second term as heroes. The extremists in the House learn a lesson in statecraft. Perhaps one or two recognize that their philosophy of active obstructionism wilts under the ire of a pissed off public.
And John Boehner? He accepts the slings and arrows of his fate. But in a narrow way, this is ultimately a win for him. He apparently sidesteps any compromise with the President; in this he remains true to the GOP extremists. He puts forward his own plan, and though it fails, at least it is some sign of initiative. And, he shows the strength of compromise, a twisted compromise but there nonetheless.
But Speaker Boehner did much more than what appears on the TV screen, if you buy my version of events. He entered into an alliance with the President, one in which he was called upon to swallow humble pie. For what is worse than a Speaker of the House being rebuffed by his conference?
John Boehner accepted his re-election with a tremendous amount of emotion. He became especially maudlin when he spoke of the humbling nature of his job. Humbling. Humility. Humiliation. For Speaker Boehner, the package contains all. The question now is will the Speaker continue this alliance? There must be a benefit. Otherwise, The Kiss is a Judas sign.
I like to think that there is a human residing behind the title House Speaker. I prefer to believe that words still have meaning and that sincerity still exists. Call me an optimist. But a conditional optimist. I want to believe that Boehner will translate that new-found humility into actions that keep the social contract he has with this nation, rather than the stranglehold of the extremist GOP.
A last note on Nancy Pelosi – again I indulge in supposition. But let’s assume that Ms. Pelosi presented the scenario to Obama and Boehner. Let’s assume that the previous Majority Leader understands the dilemma facing Boehner. Let’s give her credit for the intelligence to understand what will work and what will fail in the House. Let’s assume that she is a good negotiator. And, we have to believe she will keep a secret.