The Key Question for Legislators

Dr. Louis Perron
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Last week, I started to write here about the book “On the House” by John Bohener, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. What makes the book stand out for me is how honest Boehner talks about his successes, but also his struggles and failures. In fact, when Republicans won the majority in 2010, it was his turn to become Speaker, but by that time, he had already grown somewhat distant to his own party.

The key question in that respect is the one every member of parliament and especially those in the leadership have to answer: do you want to make a statement, lead a movement, and become a symbol? Or do you actually want to legislate and make something the law of the land?

If it’s the second one, chances are that you will not get everything you want, but instead will have to make a compromise. In the old days, this was pretty much a no-brainer in Washington D.C. The part in the book about Ronald Reagan is noteworthy in that respect (and Boehner describes the liberal icon Ted Kennedy much the same way). According to Boehner, Reagan wouldn’t recognize today’s Republican party and probably couldn’t get elected in it: “Reagan didn’t operate on the principle of all or nothing. He knew that getting 80 percent of what you wanted counted as a victory. He believed in finding common ground, building coalitions and working across the aisle […] to get things done instead of throwing bombs to score points with the partisan media.”

In more recent times, however, congressmen increasingly came to Washington D.C. to continue campaigning. For many, compromise has actually become equivalent to surrender. Boehner describes this attitude with the following words: “If we just elect enough people to office who think like us, eventually we’ll be able to do everything our way.” And then he adds: “If you think like that, chances are you are part of the problem.”

Boehner also talks in frank terms about the rise of the partisan media and its crucial role. When he was first elected in 1990, there was no FOX News, no Breitbart and barely any talk radio. By the time he became speaker in 2010, however, they have all become an important factor. According to Boehner, he had underestimated to what extent people in his own party hated then President Barack Obama: “What I also had not anticipated was the extent to which this new crowd hated – and I mean hated – Barack Obama. By 2011, the right-wing propaganda nuts had managed to turn Obama into a toxic brand for conservatives.

But there is more to it. The emergence of the partisan media also created a new power center. It made individual members more independent from the congressional leadership. In the old days, the way for a congressman to get campaign donations was to support the leadership, and, in return, they had to toe the line. Now, a new business model of political polarization had arrived and became increasingly popular: congressmen could create conflict and emotions, then go on the record in the media to talk and complain about it. The media is driven by profit, and angry, emotional people create a bigger audience, which leads to more profitable advertising sales. On the other end of the equation, the media exposure would help the politicians raise their own campaign money independent from the congressional leadership. In addition, the media presence would also give the individual member leverage over the party leadership. As a result, Boehner says that “too many Republicans in Congress cared more about what Sean Hannity thought than the secretary of Treasury or the Speaker of the House or the president of the United States.

Bohner left Washington D.C. in 2015. The processes, forces, and dynamics he describes, have only become more intense since then.