Sometimes the best (and worst) stories come as a part of a discussion between editors and reporters. This is a transcript of one such great (or terrible) idea.
Steve Cavendish, news editor: All right, I want you to keep an open mind about this, because I'm mostly serious about this (as opposed to the time I talked you into writing about the mayor's race two years ahead of elections). So check this out: Jim Cooper, speaker of the House. It's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it? We can finally have Coopmentum!
Steven Hale, reporter: Coopmentum can be neither created nor destroyed. But anyway, go on ...
SC: The House is almost completely broken. Congress is approaching historic levels of do-nothing-ism, as they've produced only 36 bills or joint resolutions this year. If you think this is intentional, you're right! The Republicans elected in the past two cycles — for simplicity's sake, we'll call them tea partiers, although that's a bit of a wide brush — have ground things to a halt.
A perfect example of this is the shutdown, which was caused by a relatively small group of extremists threatening to oust Speaker John Boehner if he didn't push for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). An insistence on rigidly holding the party line is keeping the rank and file from getting anything done. Farm bill? Energy bill? Tax reform? Immigration reform? There is real policy work to be done out there, and Boehner's insistence on unity means nothing comes to the floor unless there's agreement in the party conference.
This is why we need a speaker in the middle — and certainly not Nancy Pelosi, who would just polarize the House the other way. We can go back to regular order: Bills can work their way to the House floor and the chips can fall where they may. Cooper is just the guy for that. He's a conservative Democrat with an independent streak, respected by people on both sides of the aisle. Coopmentum! (I'm hoping that if I just keep saying Coopmentum! it will happen. Like Beetlejuice.)
SH: OK, I'll play. Yes. If Jim Cooper were speaker of the House right now, the government wouldn't be shut down. Specifically, because he would have looked at the 30 or so House Republicans who have Boehner's head in a vice, said "NO LABELS!" and let a clean continuing resolution come up for a vote. Worth noting: This could probably be said for literally something like 400 House members. If reporting from people who know what's what in the House GOP — National Review's Robert Costa, The Washington Examiner's Byron York — is accurate, only about 30 or 40 Republicans would revolt against Boehner if he brought up a clean CR.
Also worth noting: You should never go back in time just to change one fact with the goal of altering an outcome. Sure, we go back, we replace Boehner with Cooper, and maybe we avoid a shutdown. But maybe we still don't. And even if we do, what else might change? Have you seen Back to the Future? Have you seen The Butterfly Effect? The Butterfly Effect 2? The Butterfly Effect 3? Have you seen The Final Countdown?!
But in general, I buy the premise. If you had a speaker unencumbered by the Hastert Rule, we might be able to stop governing by crisis. Even so, what about logistics? Coopmentum is a powerful thing, but it isn't boundless. He got two votes in January, from Democrats. Even if you give him all the Dems, how does he get the rest of the way?
Hold on. If we're still talking about this, you've already won, haven't you?
SC: Well, yes.
OK, he would need roughly 20 Republicans to vote with them. Now, would they instantly be targeted in the next primary? Yup. But a lot of these guys are being targeted anyway. What's there to lose at this point? Polls say that the public 1) doesn't want a shutdown and 2) have some worries about Obamacare, but they want it to work.
If Cooper can rally Blue Dogs, New Democrats and GOP moderates, they can put together a working group of 75 or so. That's enough to dictate the speakership.
Now, admittedly, Vegas isn't offering odds on this plan. But it has one overriding value — the speaker's chair would be less about winning policy votes than moderating between increasingly conservative and liberal wings of the two major parties. Because party discipline has been so important of late, it's been hard for moderate Democrats to cross and vote for something like entitlement cuts — or in the shutdown case, for moderate Republicans to cross and pass a clean budget which gets people back to work.
This is why we need Coopmentum! Don't get bogged down in things like "details." This should happen!
Also, I'm ignoring any reference to an Ashton Kutcher movie.
SH: Ashton Kutcher was only in the first Butterfly Effect movie. If you can make it through the sequels, there's a lesson to be learned there. Also, Punk'd was ahead of its time.
But about Cooper. The very thing that makes him simultaneously bewildering and appealing as a political figure — and the same thing that makes him the perfect protagonist for this dreamy John Lennon Imagine-All-the-People-Living-in-Coopmentum fantasy we're concocting — is that he often doesn't seem to care about politics. He's got a principle, and he'd love to explain it to you. Sometimes this drives people mad. Other times it's a breath of fresh air.
The question is, can that guy be the speaker? If you eschew partisan politics, can you be effective as one of the top partisan figures in the country? Or would this Mushy Middle Caucus we're imagining simply get eaten alive, if they didn't eat each other first?
Could a speaker who is seen as an ally, or even just friendly, with President Obama really operate in today's House of Representatives? It's delightful to imagine, but like John Lennon said: You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not.
SC: See, you think this is a deficiency. I say the bug is a feature!
The biggest problem with Boehner is that he can't actually function as speaker, in a traditional sense, because he has no credibility within his caucus. In the days leading up to the shutdown, fear of losing his chair kept him in line with the tea partiers, who don't actually want the House to function. (See previous statements tea partiers have made about shrinking government to a size they can then drown in the bathtub.) For most on the far right, the shutdown is just an opportunity to save a few bucks.
So let's assume that the days of that type of speaker are over. What should replace it? Having the Mushy Middle as speaker works, because then policy fights can actually play out. Cooper would be beholden to neither the right nor the left. What is Cooper's best attribute? He's a smart guy. I think he would find balance in areas that would absolutely infuriate the fringes of each party but actually achieve policies that could be good for the country.
Now, I realize that the version of Jim Cooper that I have now concocted basically wears robes and a powdered wig and is the speaker of the House of Commons. But hey, Cooper could use the hair.
Holy crap, I've actually talked myself into this. I have actual Coopmentum coursing through my veins!
SH: All I'm saying is, if you hate the game, how much of a player can you really be? Wait ... my soul ... it's ... it's gone.
But really, it sounds like you have this argument down pat. Enough for a column, even. Maybe a PowerPoint?
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