OPINION: Speaker Boehner in the temple of Tea Party doom

Speaker of the House John Boehner looked as tanned and dashing as Indiana Jones escaping the Temple of Doom last week. He came out alive. He captured some treasure in the form of budget cuts. His friends shake their heads in amazement.

But the worried look on our hero’s face is a sly clue that he knows this is not the end of the movie. It is the start. And the worst is yet to come.

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When the Speaker told ABC last week that there is no “daylight” between him and the Tea Party Caucus it was because they are wrapped around his neck like an albatross.

The Tea Party’s tremendous success in the mid-term elections elevated him to the speaker’s chair. But the Tea Party freshmen are all about talk radio rhetoric, campaign slogans and reveling in the widespread discontent with American politics. They have yet to display any capacity to govern.

By forcing the nation to wait on a last-minute deal, the Speaker was able to go back to his Tea Party freshmen and claim he got the best deal possible from the Democratic majority in the Senate and the President. But what he demonstrated to moderate and independent voters, as well as Republicans not entranced by the Tea Party, is that the least experienced, most extreme elements of the party are now defining the Republican brand with hysterical stunt governing.

The Speaker has been around long enough to know Republicans got blamed in the last government shutdown and he told his caucus they likely faced the same fate if there was a shutdown this time. But with widespread doubts among the freshmen as to whether Boehner is sufficiently conservative because he is willing to negotiate with Democrats the Speaker had to pretend he was not compromising. After his long, steady climb to power in Congress it is incredible and sad Boehner now finds himself unable to present himself as a trustworthy, responsible steward of the American government.

That is not the image the Tea Party freshmen want from the Speaker. They want him pulling stunts. They want to hear him attacking the President and calling out the Democrats in Congress as big spenders. And the Tea Party had veto power over the deal.

It is no wonder the Speaker reportedly complained to the Tea Party Caucus early last week that he felt they “abandoned” him when 54 of them voted against him on a continuing resolution.

This is the Tea Party that delighted in the theatrics surrounding a possible shutdown even after Democrats met the GOP’s original demand for more than $30 billion in budget cuts.

And that was before Tea Party freshmen made the Speaker and their own party look shallow and hysterical by turning a serious fight over cutting the deficit into a sideshow on abortion when spending federal money on abortion is already banned.

The polls that once showed Democrats and Republicans sharing blame over a shutdown began to shift against the Republicans. Self-identified Tea Party members made up the lone group open to a shutdown. And in a key shift brought on by the Republican hard-line, the independents who voted with Republicans last fall and said government was too intrusive now tell pollsters they want government to do more.

In a column for the National Journal last week, ace political handicapper Charlie Cook wrote: “Among the worries the party now has is that a government shutdown could get blamed on the GOP.” Looking ahead to debates about major cuts to entitlement spending, such as Medicare, in the 2012 budget, the Republicans now seem to have squandered credibility. Cook concluded that “these party insiders believe that taking on entitlements, specifically Medicare, could jeopardize the party’s hold on the House, its strong chances of taking the Senate and the stronghold that the party has established with older, white voters — not coincidentally, Medicare recipients.”  

 But the Speaker apparently felt he had no choice but to dance to the tune set by the Tea Party freshmen because he is leery of the ambitious young guns on his leadership team, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). They are developing their own lines of loyalty among the Tea Party freshmen.

Boehner has seen this movie before. He was a freshman in 1997 when a member of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s team, Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, launched a coup against Gingrich. In addition, elements of the Tea Party are already looking for a candidate to run against Boehner on the charge he is too willing to compromise with Democrats.

Democrats are happy with a weakened Boehner because every public stumble gives middle-of-the road swing voters more faith in President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). With more budget battles coming soon, the Democrats are looking like steady hands, sensible statesmen as opposed to the reckless and political Republicans.

That leaves Boehner with little running room as the next series of battles over the debt ceiling and next year’s budget comes. At the last hour he survived last week’s fight. But the future does not look good for our hero.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.