Politics & Policy

Roy Blunt’s Whip Hand

Why it might help him to give it up.

Sometimes playing to your strength can become a weakness. Such it is with Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt’s retention of the majority-whip slot even as he campaigns for permanent election as majority leader.

Blunt is ahead in the race, and understandably so. As someone put it to me the other day, in these sorts of races, possession is nine tenths of the law. And Blunt has a lot he’s possessing.

Not only does he theoretically keep the whip spot as a soft landing if doesn’t win the majority-leader race, he is able to lobby members for their support with the knowledge right there in the foreground that even if he’s not majority leader in a couple of weeks, he will still be whip. This means he will be in a position to show his favor or disfavor toward members, win or lose. That gives him a huge amount of leverage.

But on closer examination this equation doesn’t quite work. The fact is that there is a race for whip underway right now, and there is likely to be spontaneous sentiment in the conference for an election for a whip even if Blunt loses the leader race. Especially if Blunt, the clear frontrunner, loses. If he doesn’t win the majority-leader race, with the huge head start and institutional advantages he has, it will be a real repudiation by the conference. And having declared victory last Saturday, he will have shown that he miscounted–counting is what a whip does–in the most important vote of his career. He will be in a very poor position to retain his position as whip.

So the soft-landing option might be an illusion. The stakes for Blunt in this race are enormous and there is simply no cute way around it. Blunt should embrace the risk (and the inevitable), and announce he’s resigning as whip.

This would immediately take away a favorite talking point from Blunt’s competition, Congressman John Boehner (Ohio) and John Shadegg (Ariz.)–and a fairly effective one: “If Blunt really has the votes, why doesn’t he resign as whip?” Indeed, there has always been a contradiction in Blunt’s strategy. He has maintained that he has the votes he needs, while acting as if he doesn’t–keeping the whip slot for the sake of safety or sway or both, which seems to suggest he doesn’t have the votes. Resigning would bring coherence to Blunt’s posture; he would be both acting and talking confidently.

If Blunt does indeed already have the votes locked up, this choice becomes even easier.

Sometimes people around the Blunt camp murmur something about how it’s necessary for the stability of the conference for Blunt to stay in the whip slot if he loses. This isn’t an absurd notion–turnover in leadership offices is indeed disruptive. But, on the other hand, Blunt aides say that they fully expect a whip race, which suggests a new whip wouldn’t be such an awful thing.

Another advantage would accrue to Blunt from resigning. He is losing the outside game, in the editorials and in the blogosphere. What hurts him is the perception that he is an old-style, horse-trading, risk-averse politician. Holding the whip spot plays into that perception. To the extent the outside game matters (and it seems it does more this time than leadership races in the past), giving up the whip slot would help Blunt. It would be a move worthy of a leader.

Those are all reasons for Blunt to resign his whip position. But the chief one is that it is very likely that Roy Blunt is not going to be majority whip two weeks from now, and it make sense for him to acknowledge that fact while he can still get mileage from it.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

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