History’s most celebrated speakers – Henry Clay, who presided over the Missouri Compromise; James K. Polk, who helped Andrew Jackson dismantle the National Bank; Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving speaker starting in World War II – knew their members and understood the political pressures they face.
“They are able to cobble together winning coalitions because they understand what each member, specifically what each member in their party, can vote for and cannot vote for,” explains Brown.
In short, they are master horse-traders and vote-counters.
The speakers who fell from grace or suffered revolts, such as Pelosi and Republican Newt Gingrich, typically asked too much of their peers and expected them to sacrifice too often for the good of their parties.
“That said, it is important to understand that both the size of the majority and the level of partisan polarization play a role in how speakers behave,” says Brown.
Boehner has an opportunity to be a great speaker and a brilliant compromiser (which, by the way, is what Americans ultimately want, and why they revolted against Pelosi) because he lacks a large majority.
Pelosi and Gingrich ran their much-larger House majorities with an iron-fist because both dealt with ideologically cohesive partisans fiercely opposed to the other side’s minority. “They would have been branded ‘sell-outs’ had they included too many members of the opposite party in their coalitions,” says Brown.
On the eve of the budget deal, a Gallup poll found more Americans want government leaders who share their views on the budget to back a compromise to avert a shutdown, rather than to hold out for a budget they agree with.
The key here is compromise: Most Americans understand it. They have to navigate every day in the real world, where no one ever gets everything they want.
A great speaker, Brauer says, is one who can guide legislation that ultimately proves to work. At the moment, the nation’s great concerns are jobs and the deficit.
“Ultimately,” he says, “Boehner's speakership will be judged on whether the policies he guides through truly create jobs and lessen the country's debt load.”