John Boehner, the uncertain speaker of the House, has signaled that he and the establishment have no appetite for taking on President Obama and the Democrats in a brawl, even with Democratic numbers shredded and on the wane.
The president, who can hardly believe how easy this is, continued Thursday to push his campaign of aggressive lame-duckery in bizarre places. He intruded into the controversy over another grand jury, this one in New York City, which declined to indict a white cop who killed a black man in making an arrest. An amateur video, played endlessly on television and computer screens, showed Eric Garner, a bootlegger of untaxed cigarettes, surrounded by five cops, dying in what appeared to be an illegal chokehold. Such a maneuver typically makes it impossible for a suspect to breathe.
Mr. Obama, the noted lecturer in constitutional law, can't seem to resist putting in his 2 cents' worth in these local police matters where no presidential intervention is called for, and for which there is little if any precedent. He nevertheless said Wednesday, as Mayor Bill de Blasio was trying to quiet the streets, that he never gets involved in such controversies. "My tradition is not to remark on cases where there may still be an investigation." This was a bizarre claim by a man who never lets an opportunity to inspire the mob go to waste. The president who intervened in earlier high-profile investigations with a racial element nevertheless looked a lot like Barack Obama. The resemblance was uncanny.
The president was having a good day on the congressional front, with House Republicans semi-satisfied with the opportunity to pass a meaningless bill to "block" Mr. Obama's orders forbidding deportation for illegal immigrants. The vote was 219-197, and some conservatives didn't vote because the bill, even if it became law, would have no teeth.
Mr. Boehner will not promise to bring up legislation that would indeed make a difference, to strip money in the 114th Senate from the budget of the Department of Homeland Security. Who needs Harry Reid to sit on legislation that displeases the president when there's John Boehner?
"There are a lot of options on the table," the speaker told The Weekly Standard. "I'm not going to get into hypotheticals of what we could or couldn't do. But I do know this, come January we'll have a Republican House and a Republican Senate, and we'll be in a stronger position to take some actions." Or not. Best of all, once the Republican takeover of Congress is in place the speaker will have ample opportunities to drink many toasts to himself and his resistance to resolve.
Some of the Republicans, who spent the summer and early autumn touring some big towns and making some big talk, obviously want only to bask now in the warmth of November success. These Republicans have retreated to Capitol Hill, their natural constituency, and want only to be safe from the noise and rude manners of the Tea Party. They're well advised to enjoy the fire and the eggnog now.
One important brawl looms between two conservative senators, one the favorite of high-church Republicans and the favorite of senators who itch to fight not switch. The result will say a lot about whether the events of Nov. 4 mean a lot or not very much.
Both Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the mild-mannered nice guy who wants to get along, and Jeff Sessions, the nice guy from Alabama with a quick tongue and sharp elbows who is determined to give meaning to the November sweep, want to be chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Whoever wins will have the most to say about whether the party has "the vision thing" and wants to do something with it.
The brawlers expect to get reinforcements with the coming of the 114th Senate. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a veteran of the war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, campaigned as a soldier who had heard the sound of the guns and didn't flinch. Joni Ernst of Iowa boasted of having castrated hogs on her family's farm and promised she knew how to deal with unwanted pork. Ted Cruz of Texas is a man who confronted the timid Republicans of the House this week with a pointed challenge: "Just do what you said you would." We can expect a warm winter in Washington.