John Boehner probably wishes he could be described as “ruthless” now and then.
Instead, the House speaker is widely portrayed as a bit of a bumbler.
For an LBJ-style legislative leader, ruthless can be a compliment. It means someone who twists arms, and breaks kneecaps if necessary, to get things done. In Washington-speak, ruthless means effective.
But look at the recent spate of headlines about Hillary (L.A. Times: “‘Ruthless’ Hillary Clinton Returns as the ’90s Make a Comeback.”) In that context, the adjective is hardly flattering. And consider Chris Christie, once admiringly described by the media as “brash” and “tough-talking,” now derided as a bully who ran roughshod over political opponents. In other words, ruthless.
The striking thing about Boehner’s latest round of bad press is that he actually did what the establishment press wanted. He cleared the way for Congress to raise the debt ceiling without the histrionics of a shutdown showdown that would have spooked the markets.
Of course, Boehner was forced to do that because he didn’t have the votes to do anything else. He had talked about demanding conditions from the administration in exchange for passing the bill—most recently, the relatively small-ticket item of restoring a full cost-of-living increase for military pensions. But when Boehner couldn’t unite his Tea Party wing on that, he punted.
Having endured last fall’s senseless shutdown, which damaged the Republicans, the Ohio congressman didn’t want to push his party into another battle it couldn’t win. So he allowed a one-year debt-ceiling hike to pass with mostly Democratic votes, and only 28 from the GOP. This allows all the other House Republicans to posture about “opposing” the measure while the actual strategy was to allow it to pass and avoid a government default.
If Boehner got any media applause for quickly defusing the potential crisis, it was faint indeed. And Joe Scarborough accused him of an “absolute, outright surrender.”
Ted Cruz doesn’t get described as ruthless either—more like a wacko bird, to use the phrase recycled by such critics as John McCain. The Texas senator, who led last year’s shutdown strategy, arguably pursued a ruthless tactic when he derailed plans to allow the Senate to pass the debt-ceiling hike by voice vote.
His maneuvering to force the chamber to produce 60 votes to cut off a potential filibuster meant that a dozen Republicans had to side with the majority to allow the vote to proceed. They included Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and fellow Texan John Cornyn, both of whom are facing more conservative primary challengers.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page whacked Cruz for forcing a “meaningless” vote with no alternative strategy: “Not coincidentally, activist groups allied with Mr. Cruz announced they will use those votes in GOP primaries this year against Messrs. McConnell and Cornyn. Mr. Cruz claims to be neutral in Senate primaries, but he knew exactly what he was doing…
“If Republicans fail again this November, a big reason will be their rump kamikaze caucus.”
Maybe we should call them the Ruthless Caucus.
Hillary has been branded with the R-word since the Washington Free Beacon reported on the files of her late friend Diane Blair. Blair’s papers described a 1992 Democratic strategy memo that said: “What voters find slick in Bill Clinton, they find ruthless in Hillary Clinton.”
Hmm. Could there be a gender aspect to this assessment—that women are more likely to be seen as what Barbara Bush once said about Geraldine Ferraro, “rhymes with rich”? The memo said that Hillary “needs to project a softer side—some humor, some informality.”
Some headlines referred to a ruthless Hillary as if that was the assessment in the papers, rather than a warning in a 22-year-old strategy document. But Hillary’s ice-queen image in the 2008 campaign suggests she still needs to worry about the perception.
In a smart Slate piece, John Dickerson says ruthlessness can be an important tool in politics as long as it doesn’t become all-consuming. On that score, according to Blair, Hillary sometimes found her husband’s administration wanting: “HC still in despair that nobody in WH tough and mean enough.” And: “Most people in this town have no pain threshold.”
Dickerson says that “Clinton is ruthless in conversation in a way that we never have seen with Christie. It’s gripping reading, but it’s more figurative than real; Clinton couldn’t abuse power because as first lady she had none. Furthermore, the machismo displayed in private conversations with a friend requires a caveat. It’s possible that Clinton, powerless and under siege, talked tougher on the phone precisely because she couldn’t follow through in real life.”
As for New Jersey, he says, “the ruthlessness of the Christie operation bled over into its abuse of power, but so far there is no connection between Christie and his aides.”
The dictionary defines ruthless as “without pity or compassion; cruel; merciless.” No politician wants that rap. But a touch of ruthlessness can be better than being dismissed as a weenie.
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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.