Last spring, as President Barack Obama was beset by IRS scandals, Benghazi backlash and the second-term blues, he was reported by The New York Times to be privately talking about “going Bulworth.”
The phrase is a reference to a satirical 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a Democratic senator who risks his job by telling the public what he really thinks.
In real life, it is House Speaker John Boehner who finally has gone Bulworth — big time. In two recent news conferences, the Ohio Republican spoke out forcefully against the outside conservative groups that repeatedly have undermined his agenda and pulled Republican lawmakers into unwinnable situations, including the October government shutdown.
Defending a budget deal brokered by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, Boehner called the outside groups “ridiculous” for “using our members” and “using the American people for their own goals.”
“I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be. And frankly, I just think they’ve lost all credibility,” he told reporters. “They pushed us into the fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government ... the day before the government reopened, one of these groups said, ‘Well, we never thought it would work.’ Are you kidding me?”
Actually, if you have seen the video of that sound bite, you know that Boehner abruptly exclaimed that last sentence with a surprising fury that normal writing rules fail to convey or, as Tom Wolfe might put it: “Are yo-o-ou kiddin’ me?”
Boehner’s crack was a direct shot, without naming names, at Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham, who said on Fox News in October, “Well, everybody understands that we’re not going to be able to repeal [President Obama’s health care] law until 2017, and that we have to win the Senate and we have to win the White House.”
Yet, repealing the Affordable Care Act was the main stated goal of conservatives in the standoff that led to the partial government shutdown and a near-default of the nation’s credit obligations.
In the end, the shutdown needlessly damaged congressional approval ratings while ironically distracting public attention from the Obama administration’s biggest self-inflicted wound: the health care law’s botched Oct. 1 rollout.
Even so, Heritage Action, Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and other similar outside groups continued their relentless pressures on Republican lawmakers to cause even more damage to themselves.
The bill brokered by Ryan and Murray sets a budget for the government for the next two years, taking away the threat of a shutdown in January — and ending the cycle of budget crises that have plagued Washington for the past three years.
Predictably the outside right-wingers howled that the new budget didn’t cut taxes and spending enough, but Boehner had heard enough from them. After his strong public stand, the House passed the bill 332 to 94, including a 169-to-62 majority of Republicans.
Could Boehner be biting the hands that feed him and his party? Maybe. But what aggravates GOP lawmakers more these days is how much support outside groups have been feeding, or threatening to feed, to their challengers in Republican primaries, if the incumbents don’t toe the right-wing line.
Conservative pressure groups have taken on exaggerated importance as more GOP lawmakers fear challenges from insurgent tea party candidates in Republican primaries more than they fear Democrats in general elections.
Some have compared Boehner’s rebuke to Howard Beale, the deranged network news anchor in Network, who urges his audience to shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
But unlike Beale, Sen. Bulworth has long been a part of the system that he decries. He speaks out partly because he is disgusted with how much he has let the system corrupt him. I heard more Bulworth than Beale in Boehner’s frustrated voice.
He decided that trying to appease outside groups no longer was worth the price to his party or the nation. It would be nice to hear more real-life lawmakers show such Bulworth-worthy courage.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.