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Boehner's choice: Tea party or America?

By Maria Cardona, CNN Contributor
October 21, 2013 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maria Cardona: Shutdown resolution hinged on whether Boehner would defy tea party
  • She says Boehner's job appears safe, but some question his leadership
  • She says he seems to ignore interests of Americans in favor of tea party, a losing proposition
  • Cardona: Boehner must lead if he wants to save GOP House districts that appear vulnerable

Editor's note: Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist, a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

(CNN) -- Speaking to the nation after Congress reached a deal to reopen the government and temporarily raise the debt ceiling, President Barack Obama said we are "Americans first" and need to put partisan interests aside to get things done.

But can we? The recent shenanigans do not bode well for the future.

The resolution of the shutdown always hinged on whether House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, would defy the tea party hard-liners in his party and allow a vote on a bill that a majority of Republicans did not support. What have we learned about Boehner's leadership, or lack thereof?

Maria Cardona
Maria Cardona

We are already hearing two extreme viewpoints. Rep. Raul Labrador and other staunch conservatives and tea party members gave him kudos. Boehner's job as speaker of the House seems safe, at least for now. But others in the Republican Party, and outside of it, say Boehner needs to grow a spine to stand up against the tea party caucus and Sen. Ted Cruz, the ultimate architect of the shutdown fiasco of 2013.

Such differing views about the role Boehner played and how he led his troops reflects the exact polarization that produced the fingernails-to-the-chalkboard tension that caused the shutdown face-off in the first place.

GOP, Boehner take shutdown hit in new CNN poll

In press conferences and TV appearances, Cruz and House tea party members said time and time again that they were doing what the "American people" asked them to do. They talked about those who cheered on the government shutdown to get rid of the Affordable Care Act.

But polls say most Americans disapproved of the Republican tactics and did not want the government to shut down over Obamacare. These Americans give a historically low disapproval rating to Republicans and the tea party in particular. Those same numbers give Obama and the Democrats confidence in saying they are the ones who are actually listening to the American people.

Republicans take hit in new CNN poll
Analysis: Tea party caucus like vampires
Boehner: 'We fought the good fight'

The problem for Boehner as a leader of a fractured caucus is that he is listening to only a small but loud fraction of the American electorate. The voices of this America are vengeful if they don't get their way. And their leaders were clearly able to compel Boehner to rebuff the other more mainstream and moderate America that seeks compromise and resolution.

So did Boehner display good leadership? For his tea party caucus, yes. For the country, no. And yet, going to the mat for the tea party might enable Boehner to push them hard to avoid this destructive path next time. It might give him the backbone he will need to stand up to them in the coming months and listen to the other "America" that represents more reasonable middle-of-the-road voices. These also happen to be a majority of the country -- Republicans, Democrats and independents. They are the voters that decide presidential elections and are precisely the ones the tea party is alienating.

A defeated GOP wants to unite, move on, fight another day

The bigger problem for moderate and pragmatic Republicans is that the tea party doesn't care about the Republican Party's shrinking White House prospects. But it does care about its own and about keeping control of the House of Representatives. This could be enough to get the tea party to rethink its strategy.

Americans have had it. The most recent CNN poll shows 54% of Americans think it is a bad thing for the country that the GOP controls Congress. For the first time ever, polls show 60% of voters are ready to boot all of Congress out -- including their own representatives.

While many strategists believe the House is still safe for Republicans, a recent Public Policy Polling survey, conducted by the Democratic pollster for MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group, suggests that the Democrats in competitive Republican districts are ahead. And Democrats need only to flip 17 districts to gain control of the House.

There are 17 districts held by Republicans that Obama won in 2012. There are 17 districts held by Republicans where Obama lost by 2 points or less. These are districts where because of Boehner's poor leadership anti-tea party backlash could help Democrats win seats.

Boehner's leadership will soon be tested yet again -- on immigration, the farm bill and the budget, the three issues that Obama says he will push in the remainder of his term. He can choose to be a strong leader for the tea party, or be a strong leader for the country, truly work with Obama and the Democrats, and help heal the battered image of his party and of Washington. He can seal his fate as a true leader, or as the captain of the Titanic.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maria Cardona.

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