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What's behind Boehner's nutty lawsuit threat

By Paul Begala
updated 11:49 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
John Boehner has been the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011, making him second in line for the presidency, behind the vice president. Look back at his career in politics so far. John Boehner has been the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011, making him second in line for the presidency, behind the vice president. Look back at his career in politics so far.
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John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
John Boehner's political career
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Begala: Why is Boehner suing Obama in face of criticism? Because he may win
  • He sees hypocrisy in that Boehner has criticized frivolous lawsuits, backed Bush orders
  • Begala: Sue first, ask questions later stunt might find support from Supreme Court's right wing
  • He says if GOP can't move agenda or regain White House, maybe court will do heavy lifting

Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- House Speaker John Boehner's threatened lawsuit against President Obama has elicited scorn from the right and blistering attacks from the left. So why is Boehner pursuing it? Perhaps because he thinks he just might win in the end.

As political stunts go, Boehner's is too transparent for my tastes. And I say this as a guy who has perpetrated some serious stunt work in my political career.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala

Boehner's not a bad guy. One gets the sense he'd rather be sharing Marlboros and merlot with Obama than taking him to court. But he is a SINO: Speaker in Name Only. The tea party is driving the GOP train these days, which explains the frequent train wrecks. So, perhaps to appease the tea party bosses, Boehner has decided to sue the President.

But appeasement never works. Highly influential conservative blogger and pundit Erick Erickson calls the Boehner lawsuit "taxpayer-funded political theater" and notes that some of Boehner's complaints about Obama are political, not legal or constitutional.

Opinion: Boehner, do your job instead

Then there's the small problem of hypocrisy. As the progressive group Americans United for Change notes in this clever ad, Boehner has long opposed citizens' rights to sue corporations over, say, defective products or gender discrimination in the workplace. He rails against "frivolous lawsuits" -- until he decides to file one.

A second way Boehner is being hypocritical is his support for robust executive authority when George W. Bush was exercising it. Bush issued far more executive orders than Obama, going so far as to use his executive authority to authorize waterboarding, which Sen. John McCain flatly describes as torture and a "violation of the Geneva Conventions."

So, to be clear: Dubya uses his executive authority more often -- including to turn Americans into torturers -- and Boehner goes along. But Obama uses his executive authority to give businesses more flexibility in complying with Obamacare or to extend family leave to gay couples, and Boehner literally wants to make a federal case of it.

One more sure sign that this is a political puppet show: It is not at all clear which executive actions Boehner's lawsuit would focus on, because he has not identified them, telling reporters, "When I make that decision, I'll let you know."

Boehner: Why we must now sue the President

Cutter: Suing Obama a waste of tax money
John Boehner defends plan to sue Obama
Boehner: Why we must sue the President

Now, here's the depressing part: Boehner's sue first, ask questions later strategy just might work. Not because the suit has merit but because the Supreme Court has several activist Republican justices. They recently rewrote the First Amendment to declare that corporations have souls and thus have freedom of religion. Soon, I expect them to grant sainthood to Koch Industries.

Obviously, I can't get into Boehner's head. It is entirely possible that there is no grand strategy here. Perhaps his lawsuit is just one strand of a handful of spaghetti he's throwing against the wall just to get through the day and survive the latest tea party onslaught. And yet, there is a chance this one strand will stick.

On the other hand, progressives would do well to assume there is a method to Boehner's madness. The court's right wing plays a long game. Perhaps realizing that shifting demographics and a divided GOP will make it difficult to put a Republican back in the White House, they may seize on Boehner's lawsuit and use it to further crimp the power of the chief executive.

Unable to marshal the votes to get their legislative agenda through the Senate and unable to earn the votes to recapture the White House, it may be that the Republicans' strategy for the foreseeable future is to ignore their losses at the ballot box and leave the heavy lifting to the one place where five Republican votes can cancel out tens of millions of Americans' votes: the Supreme Court.

Castellanos: Obama hasn't hit rock bottom yet

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