Setting the bar for ‘success’ too low

Karl Rove’s new Wall Street Journal column is all about House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) “surprising success” so far in 2011. As Rove sees it, Boehner has had a “remarkable run” by having “out-maneuvered” President Obama repeatedly.

Mr. Boehner may not be an inspiring orator, but he has moved the country and Congress in his direction. He has succeeded in large part because he had a more modest view of the post than his recent predecessors. […]

So Washington’s agenda this fall will reflect the priorities not of the glitzy Mr. Obama but of the modest, well-grounded Mr. Boehner.

Rove’s larger point seems to be that Boehner — or at least Boehner’s caucus — is largely dictating the agenda in Washington, and there’s obviously some truth to that. By refusing to compromise, adopting an unyielding right-wing agenda, and normalizing extortion politics, House Republicans have had considerable success, at least insofar as they’re dictating terms and fighting debates on their turf.

But Rove’s column comes across as kind of silly if one stops to think about the larger context.

For all of Rove’s gushing about the Speaker’s “surprising success,” Boehner’s tenure has been a seven-month-long fiasco. The Speaker has routinely struggled to keep his caucus in line behind his leadership, for example, and has found in many key instances that House Republicans simply don’t care what Boehner thinks. Whereas the Speaker traditionally is one of Washington’s most powerful players, Boehner is arguably the weakest Speaker we’ve seen in many decades — he’s not leading an unruly caucus; his unruly caucus is leading him.

Indeed, Rove seems especially impressed that Boehner has blocked White House attempts at additional revenue. What Rove neglects to mention is that Boehner was fully prepared to make an agreement with Obama for additional revenue, only to find that the Speaker’s caucus would forcefully reject the compromise.

What’s more, looking back at Boehner’s “successes,” it’s hard not to notice that Congress hasn’t passed any meaningful legislation at all this year — and in all likelihood, the Speaker will help oversee a Congress in which nothing of significance passes at all.

What have we seen from Boehner’s chamber since January? Five resignations, zero jobs bills, two near-shutdowns, no major legislative accomplishments, and the first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt, attributed almost entirely to the antics of Boehner’s Republican caucus.

Also note, thanks to Boehner’s sterling work, Congress now has its lowest approval rating in three decades, and Boehner’s personal approval ratings are spiraling in the wrong direction.

If Rove finds this impressive, I’m afraid he’s set the bar for “success” much too low.