When John Boehner was sworn in as speaker of the House, he was handed an enormous gavel. But when he was recently describing his role as a legislative leader, it sounded like a shepherd’s crook would be more useful. In an interview on Face the Nation on Sunday, Boehner said his job was not to dictate to Republican members what legislation they should support but merely to “facilitate” a process where they found their own outcome. He didn’t dare offer an opinion about comprehensive immigration reform because it would interfere. “It’s not about me,” the speaker told Bob Schieffer. “It’s not about what I want. What I’ve committed to, when I became speaker, was to a more open and fair process. And as difficult as this issue is, me taking a hard position for or against some of these issues will make it harder for us to get a bill … If I come out and say, ‘I’m for this’ and ‘I’m for that,’ all I’m doing is making my job harder.”
It’s a shame that Barack Obama and John Boehner don’t talk much, because they’d have a lot to commiserate over. Though the two men have very different jobs, responsibilities, and powers, they both face the same challenge: how to assert their will in an office circumscribed by the Constitution and circumstance. They also each face frequent criticism—sometimes from each other—that they are weaklings, unable to wield the powers granted to them. In the end, both men face one of two evaluations: They either did the best they could with the blunt tools of office in a unique time of partisanship, or they fell short of greatness because they could not adapt and use the tools of the job to overcome the partisan conditions.
Republicans snicker at the idea of Obama “leading from behind,” so it was surprising to hear Boehner give such a rousing defense of the practice. The term was used by an Obama aide in a New Yorker profile to describe his approach for intervening in Libya. When used by the president’s critics, it is meant to show just how clueless the president is about leadership. Leaders always lead from the front, so the critique goes. That is the essence of the word. The notion of “leading from behind” is as silly as saying “batting from the clubhouse.”
But that’s wrong. Leading from behind is simply a different style of leadership. If done well, it can be a sign of intelligence and adaptation, and it can be far more effective in achieving an objective than the action-hero vision of leadership we all enjoyed during King Henry V’s speech at Agincourt. So the question shouldn’t be whether a leader is correct in trying to achieve his objective this way, but whether he’s applying this method at the right moment.
In the presidency, the most talked about version of this approach is Dwight Eisenhower’s “hidden hand,” but all the great presidents knew how to play behind the scenes. LBJ, most recently put forward as the patron saint of robust leadership, nevertheless knew when to confine himself to the background. As Robert Caro writes in The Passage of Power, after he wooed Sen. Harry Byrd on a tax bill, he gave him instructions on how to make the Virginian look better in public at LBJ’s own expense: “Now you can tell your friends that you forced the President of the United States to reduce the budget before you let him have his tax cut.”*
Leading from behind is also a useful strategy when you have no others. Boehner has few options in the House. If he pushes conservatives too hard to a specific outcome, they will not go. Ultimately, a House speaker’s strength comes from the size and unity of his majority. Boehner’s majority is not unified. He’s not the first speaker to face this problem. As Molly Ball points out in the Atlantic, Speaker Tip O’Neill was equally constrained by Democratic conservatives in his caucus who wanted to vote with President Reagan. O’Neill had to stomach a lot of votes with which he personally disagreed. But he played a long game, waiting for Reagan to overplay his hand so that he could win new members in the 1982 election that expanded his liberal coalition. When that came to pass, O’Neill could orchestrate a far more left-leaning budget in 1983.
Speakers have found ways to force unity, but Boehner has fewer tools than his predecessors. He still retains the office’s big powers—the ability to dictate what legislation makes it to the floor and committee assignments—but he has fewer day-to-day tricks to get the job done. When Sam Rayburn was speaker, he kept the legislation coming up for a vote secret to keep as many members in the dark as possible; their ignorance helped him push through bills. Previous speakers could also make it easier or harder for members to bring pork home to their districts. Earmarks are essentially gone now, which means Boehner and his team have far fewer inducements to woo members to his side. The hardcore conservatives who give Boehner heartburn are also not rewarded by their constituents for bringing home goodies. Committee assignments don’t mean as much as they once did because members can build their own brand and power base in the media.
Members are highly suspicious now of the back-room deal, so the speaker has to appear more hands off than ever. That’s why Boehner talks so much about letting the House “work its will.” This serves two purposes. It allows members time to have their say, which makes them feel good and allows them to show their constituents how hard they are fighting for them. It also allows constituencies to get to them and make their case directly. So while talk radio hosts are railing against amnesty in the comprehensive immigration bill, local farmers, faith leaders, and high-tech CEOs can perhaps help these members get to yes.
If in the end if comprehensive immigration skeptics fall in line, they don’t feel like they’ve been jammed into it. They also aren’t likely to be accused of being railroaded by a rigged process if they can show their constituents that the game was played fairly. This was something Rayburn understood as he tried to balance a split between Southern and Northern factions of his party. “You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too,” said Rayburn.
So far, momentum has been useless when it comes to passing immigration reform. The initial burst of momentum gained by the GOP’s postelection panic over losing Hispanic voters has not changed the minds of enough conservatives. Senate passage of a comprehensive bill did not change minds in the House either. If Boehner permits a free-flowing process that moves the House in the direction he wants, that creates actual useful momentum for him. What does he want? His biggest goal is an outcome that allows him to put the immigration issue behind him.
Boehner’s constraints are self-imposed. He could make a deal with Democrats to pass immigration reform, and he has done that before on the fiscal cliff deal, the Violence Against Women Act, and Hurricane Sandy relief funding. But those issues were not as volatile in Republican ranks as immigration and did not risk a conservative crack-up. If he cut a deal, would he lose his speakership? There would have to be a viable alternative candidate who wanted to herd the cats. But even if he retained the job, that kind of crack-up would make passing bills, which will require cajoling the same conservatives, that much harder.
There has been a lot of speculation on whether Boehner will stick to the so-called Hastert Rule, allowing no bill to come to the floor unless it can pass with a majority of the majority. He has said he will not break this promise. That may be his heart’s true desire, but we can’t really know right now. Boehner understands that the more Democrats think he needs them for passage of a comprehensive bill, the more they’ll demand from him. So even if Boehner were planning on passing immigration reform with a minority of his party, he will maintain his firm stance on the Hastert Rule until the very last minute.
In the end, the question is not whether John Boehner is a leader. He is—he’s just a leader with modest ambitions. In the study of House speakers, the debate splits along lines familiar to presidential observers. Presidents are either “at liberty … to be as big a man as he can,” as Woodrow Wilson wrote when he was a Princeton political science professor. Or presidents are circumscribed by the political conditions they face, as Wilson discovered when he actually had the job. In congressional studies, the split is over whether a speaker is merely an agent carrying out the will of his conference or whether a powerful speaker can make his own weather.
Newt Gingrich is the most recent example of the latter category, a risk-taker with vast ambitions for his party and himself. These kinds of leaders, argues political scientist Randall Strahan in Leading Representatives, are the ones we remember because they assert themselves at precisely the moment we face now: when the party is divided and can be turned in one direction or another by active leadership. Gingrich came into office with specific policy goals and drove the institution toward them. He wanted to change the House to make it more effective for him. Gingrich achieved a great deal but ultimately was undone by fellow Republicans. Boehner is far less ambitious. He wants to change the House simply to make it a more effective vehicle for conservative policies. That may help him achieve various goals along the way, but he is not moving the institution toward a fixed star that guides him. In this way, he is like the more cautious Rayburn, whose inclination was often to avoid battles when the outcome was uncertain. When Schieffer asked Boehner about his legacy, the speaker responded that he hoped people would say, “He was fair to all and protected the institution.” John Boehner just wants to be a good shepherd.
Correction, July 23, 2013: This article originally misidentified the senator to whom LBJ gave instruction on how to look better in public. It was Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia, not Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. (Return to the corrected sentence.)