John Boehner's high-stakes moment

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

An inspirational prebattle speech? A jittery plea for help? Speaker John Boehner may not have conjured up Braveheart on Wednesday for fellow House Republicans who took part in a private postelection conference call. But the Ohioan did try to rally the troops by exhorting, “When we’re unified, we’re at our strongest. Divided, we fail.”

Yet, within the hour, Boehner was out in public delivering a less combative and more conciliatory message on the need to find common ground with Democrats to avert the looming “fiscal cliff.” That prospect refers to the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the triggering of military and other sequester spending cuts early next year that could wreak havoc on the fragile economic recovery. Reading a statement to reporters at the Capitol, Boehner said, “Mr. President, this is your moment. We’re ready to be led, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans…. Let’s rise above the dysfunction, and do the right thing together for our country in a bipartisan way.”

Such is the bipolar House leadership course that Boehner is forced to set, even before his second term as the leader of the House Republican majority formally gets under way in January.

Tuesday’s elections will keep Boehner’s party solidly in control of the House in the 113th Congress, although with fewer seats, even as President Obama was reelected and Democrats gained a slightly bigger Senate majority. Taken together, the election results seem to add up to more  gridlock. Indeed, political lines could become even more hardened than they were in the 112th Congress.

This is the dilemma facing Boehner, who with Mitt Romney’s loss remains the GOP’s point man in the Washington battles ahead over spending reductions and taxes. His success as speaker in the next session (as well as in the upcoming lame duck) may well depend as much on his finding common ground with the rowdiest and most conservative of his own rank-and-file members as it does in his reaching compromise with Obama and congressional Democrats.

Whether it will be Nancy Pelosi or someone else leading the Democratic opposition in January, they, too, could come to be judged on how well they rein in their members who sit furthest to the left in what will now be an even more liberal caucus. (In the election’s aftermath, the San Francisco lawmaker and former speaker was keeping mum on whether she will seek to remain the top House Democrat after another election that leaves her party in the minority, although many colleagues think she will. Democratic Caucus leadership elections are scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving.)

But for both Republican and Democratic leaders, the key to success could be convincing their hard-liners—in the face of a national fiscal crisis—to focus on more definable policy achievements instead of obstinately refusing to consider anything short of their ideals, and therefore do nothing. Will they come to understand incrementalism? Will they come to understand that to get to point Z, they first might have to settle for X?

“The election certainly was not a mandate to either of them to be rigidly ideological on the left or on the right,” says James Thurber, a professor of government and the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. He says that it’s much more important for Boehner, as the leader of the majority, to find some way—to do some leading—to marshal the support of those on his right.

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