On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner broke months of silence by finally endorsing Mitt Romney for president. Boehner said he would do “everything [he] can to help [Romney] win.”
For most of the primary season, Boehner refused to offer an official endorsement. He had been shifty and oblique in his responses to the endorsement question until Tuesday, even though with the Republican primary functionally over, Mitt Romney has been the inevitable GOP nominee for several weeks.
Romney has also already nabbed several key endorsements over the year, from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Most recently, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, himself a former 2012 potential, offered his support as well.
While Boehner cited the professionalism required by his upcoming role as chairman of the Republican National Convention as the principal reason for his prolonged silence, the reality may be more nuanced. Internal House power relations and personal dislike may, in fact, be major contributing factors.
Last month, I predicted an upcoming Boehner vs. Cantor feud based in large part on the circumstances surrounding former House Speaker and current – if hopeless – presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s tumultuous years in the top House leadership position. Indeed, the tension between Boehner and his top lieutenant is far from secret, and regardless of whether the GOP is successful in unseating President Barack Obama in 2012, the mutual unease between the two may transform into overt hostility.
Cantor, widely believed to have his eyes on the speakership – and eventually the presidency – endorsed Romney over a month ago. Quite possibly, Boehner sought to further distance himself from the outspoken Majority Leader (who has found himself in trouble for controversial endorsements of late) until it was abundantly clear that Romney would be the nominee. Maintaining an air of civility and maturity during what was widely seen as a circus of a primary helped Boehner preserve his image as the wise statesman while younger, more volatile Republican officials threw their support behind various candidates. Additionally, had Boehner endorsed Romney early, he would have run the risk of appearing foolish if Santorum capitalized on his momentum – after all, the former Pennsylvania senator did win 11 states.
Another reason for Boehner’s delay may be his relationship with the former Massachusetts governor. Although both are considered members of the GOP pre-Tea Party old guard, lately the two have faced some differences. Boehner, generally a bastion of politeness, subtly rebuked Romney for his harsh criticisms of Obama while abroad. It was an interesting move for Boehner, rooted either in the understanding of Romney’s electability and the corresponding necessity for professional conduct, or in a fundamental unease with the slick presidential hopeful. Either way, the reprimand is a reminder that if and until Romney occupies the White House, Boehner is nominally the face of the party.
By now, of course, Boehner’s endorsement is more symbolic than anything, considering Romney’s inevitability as nominee. But shackled as he is by the demands of vocal House Republicans, particularly the largely Tea Party freshmen, and faced with what was up until recently an incompetent crop of presidential contenders, Boehner finds himself in a unique position. He is correct in acknowledging the necessity for fairness in his dual role as Speaker and chairman of the RNC , but there is some political calculus involved as well. If Romney loses in November, Boehner formally remains the most powerful Republican in the country. But, a victorious Romney, who has had tensions with the Speaker, may be the opening Cantor needs to initiate a power grab. Obviously, as a Republican, Boehner wants a Republican president, but the personal stakes involved demand careful treading for the scrutinized Speaker.