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Newt Gingrich Vs. John Boehner

I’m continuing to think about what the 112th Congress will look like next year if Republicans do about as well as expected in November...

I think everyone should keep in mind one key difference between 1995 and 2011: experience. Famously, not a single Republican Member of the House in 1995 had ever served in a GOP-majority House (a handful had been part of Democratic majorities before party-switching). No one knew what the Republican way to run a committee, or a subcommittee, or the House floor was. No one -- not Members, not staff, not interest group allies -- knew how Republicans dealt with budget resolutions, or appropriations bills, or the debt ceiling, or Congressional pay, or all the other normal parts of legislative governing that Republicans had happily opted out of when they were in the minority. That’s not the case now; John Boehner and his staff won’t have to figure out what they’re doing as they go along, and neither will incoming committee and subcommittee chairs. 

On top of that, House Republicans were burdened with, well, let’s just say, someone who was not exactly born to be Speaker of the House of Representatives. That is, Newt Gingrich was a bombastic fraud, and it took months for the GOP conference to realize that, and years for them to get rid of him. In my (admittedly speculative) judgment, they’re in much better shape this time around. John Boehner isn’t going to inspire the rank-and-file, but he’s also much less likely to embarrass his conference in front of the press, and he couldn’t possibly be a worse strategist or negotiator than Gingrich was.

Is that going to be enough for the Republicans? I don’t know. Boehner’s team will (and of course this is all if they win a majority, which is likely but not certain) have to deal with some pretty difficult circumstances. The gap between what GOP voters want and the reality of what they can get is going to be enormous, for both policy reasons (since for example their budget demands don’t add up) and for political reasons (since Barack Obama will be in the White House, and because whatever happens in November the Senate will still be the Senate). In my view, both of those gaps are quite a bit larger than they were in 1995; Barack Obama is likely to be at least somewhat more popular than Bill Clinton was back then, Republicans will probably either not have the Senate or not have much of a working majority on most issues, and the policy environment, as everyone knows, is quite a bit more difficult now than then. 

As I said earlier today, the partisan media (far better developed than in 1995, when Fox News didn’t even exist) will be very helpful in convincing activists and voters that Boehner & co. are doing a great job -- but only if they choose to do so, and there are plenty of reasons to suspect that they may not, at least not unconditionally. And while Gingrich had to deal with new Members who were caught up in believing their own rhetoric about revolution, Boehner will have to deal with something even worse: an entire conference absolutely terrified of their primary electorates. That’s going to mean that even if leadership can figure out the safest path for the party, it may have enormous difficulties getting Members to go along. 

Conclusion? On the House side, the GOP is much, much better prepared to take over than they were in 1995. And: they’ll need to be; their challenges will be a lot harder than those they pretty much failed at back then.