Boehner waves a white flag on lead­er­ship

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Twit­ter: @Mil­bank

The Con­fed­er­ates launched a sur­prise at­tack, un­der cover of dark­ness.

It was 8:30 Wed­nes­day night, and the House was plod­ding to­ward its 20th hour of de­bate on a lit­tle­watched ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill, when Rep. Ken Calvert (Calif.), who had been lead­ing the Repub­li­can side of the de­bate, rose. “I have an amend­ment at the desk,” he said.

Yes he did: A pro­posal to pro­tect the sale and dis­play of the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag at na­tional parks and ceme­ter­ies.

Democrats couldn’t be­lieve what they were hear­ing: Just as South Carolina leg­is­la­tors were fi­nally vot­ing to re­move the sym­bol of ha­tred from their state­house grounds, Repub­li­cans in the U.S. Capi­tol were propos­ing to re­store the flag. And they were sched­ul­ing the vote for July 9, the an­niver­sary of the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the 14th Amend­ment promis­ing equal pro­tec­tion of the laws.

The ma­neu­ver pro­voked a fusil­lade of out­raged speeches on the House floor, cul­mi­nat­ing in an emo­tional plea Thurs­day af­ter­noon by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon. “When I was march­ing across that bridge in Selma in 1965, I saw some of the law of­fi­cers, sher­iff’s deputies wear­ing on their hel­met the Con­fed­er­ate flag,” he said. “I don’t want to go back, and as a coun­try we can­not go back. ... We all live in the same house, the Amer­i­can house.”

In the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor, Rep. Lynn A. West­more­land (R-Ga.) of­fered a re­but­tal to that noble speech. He told re­porters, in­clud­ing Jonathan Weis­man of the New York Times, that the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag isn’t racist and that he didn’t think Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers had “any thoughts about slav­ery.”

Asked if he could un­der­stand Lewis’s point, West­more­land replied, “The ques­tion is, ‘ Does he un­der­stand where I’m com­ing from?’ ” We do— all too clearly. Repub­li­can lead­ers, try­ing to end the hu­mil­i­a­tion they brought on them­selves, pulled the ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill from the floor. But how could such a fi­asco oc­cur in the first place? It’s not as if there’s a huge groundswell within Repub­li­can ranks to fly the Con­fed­er­ate flag — par­tic­u­larly af­ter its as­so­ci­a­tion with the al­leged killer in last month’s South Carolina church mas­sacre.

Rather, Thurs­day’s Con­fed­er­ate flag de­ba­cle is a di­rect con­se­quence of House Speaker John A. Boehner’s lead­er­ship strat­egy. Cal­cu­lat­ing that com­pro­mise with the Demo­cratic mi­nor­ity will cause his con­ser­va­tive cau­cus to oust him from the speak­er­ship, Boehner has es­sen­tially cho­sen to pass a leg­isla­tive agenda with only Repub­li­can votes. Be­cause this leaves him a thin mar­gin for er­ror, it em­pow­ers the most ex­treme con­ser­va­tives in the House, who have an in­cen­tive to with­hold their votes if they don’t get ev­ery­thing they want.

This lead­er­ship style also be­stows out­size power on con­ser­va­tive groups such as Her­itage Ac­tion, an out­growth of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion. The group gets much credit for the 2013 gov­ern­ment shut­down, and it has been in­flu­en­tial in keep­ing the Ex­port-Im­port Bank from be­ing reau­tho­rized and in get­ting a com­mit­tee named to probe the Beng­hazi, Libya, at­tacks. Her­itage Ac­tion also had much to do with the ini­tial de­feat of trade leg­is­la­tion last month — and it cel­e­brated as Boehner aban­doned his at­tempt to pun­ish law­mak­ers who voted against it.

On the ed­u­ca­tion bill, Her­itage de­manded that the leg­is­la­tion ef­fec­tively take the fed­eral gov­ern­ment out of ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy by cre­at­ing nos­tringsat­tached block grants to states. When the bill came up in Fe­bru­ary with­out such a pro­vi­sion, con­ser­va­tives balked, and Boehner’s team had to re­treat. This time, lead­ers bought con­ser­va­tive votes by mak­ing such an amend­ment in or­der. The amend­ment failed, but the con­ces­sion earned just enough con­ser­va­tive votes for the bill to pass by a bare 218to213 af­ter ex­ten­sive armtwist­ing.

The flag fi­asco fol­lowed a sim­i­lar ide­o­log­i­cal dy­namic. Repub­li­can lead­ers were com­ing up short on votes for the leg­is­la­tion, in part be­cause some South­ern con­ser­va­tives were an­gry that the bill in­cluded lan­guage, adopted by the House in a voice vote, block­ing the sale and dis­play of the flag at parks and ceme­ter­ies. So the GOP lead­er­ship agreed to let these hold­outs have a vote to re­in­state the Con­fed­er­ate flag.

The re­sult was em­bar­rass­ment for a party that al­ready has trou­ble with non­white Amer­ica. Typ­i­cal of the se­ries of out­raged speak­ers was Rep. Ha­keem Jef­fries (DN.Y.), who dis­played the flag in the well of the House. “Had this Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag pre­vailed in war 150 years ago,” he said. “I would be here as a slave.”

Boehner seemed not to know what to do about the mess his low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor lead­er­ship caused. He told re­porters he had “some ideas” about a con­ver­sa­tion on the sub­ject, “and when I firm them up in my head, I’ll let you know.”

Here’s one idea: Show some lead­er­ship.

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