TOPICS > Politics > GWEN'S TAKE

Playing whack-a-mole: Hit or miss on politics and policy

BY Gwen Ifill  June 13, 2014 at 11:24 AM EDT
Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Wednesday that he was stepping down from his leadership position after a surprising defeat in Tuesday’s GOP primary. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Had a bad week? One that made you cry? One where you got smacked sideways by a setback you never saw coming?

John Boehner has some advice for you: change the subject.

That’s the option the speaker of the House chose this week when he walked into the media lion den -– his weekly press briefing -– to answer questions after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was handed his walking papers by the voters of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.

When reporters pressed him on Cantor’s downfall and the leadership chasm it opened within the House majority, Boehner insisted the real problem was not to be found on Capitol Hill, but at the White House.

“This is a time for unity,” Boehner said. “This is a time to focus on what we all know is true, that the president’s policies have failed the American people.”

The news conference included questions about Cantor and the House leadership race -– which he mostly blew off — and the Bergdahl affair. He said it was a mistake to swap the U.S. soldier for five Guantanamo detainees.

But it was the final question -– about the sudden deterioration in Iraq -– that the speaker seemed to be waiting for.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen this problem coming for over a year, and … it’s not like we haven’t seen, over the last five or six months, these terrorists moving in, taking control of Western Iraq,” he said animatedly.

“Now they’ve taken control of Mosul. They’re 100 miles from Baghdad. And what’s the president doing?” he said, his voice rising. “Taking a nap!”

Perhaps knowing he would not utter a better soundbite that day, Boehner then picked up his notes and strode from the room. Minutes later, his “taking a nap” quote overshadowed all talk of Republican disunity.

The White House tries this too. Earlier this week, in the middle of an event on student loan forgiveness, the president interrupted himself -– alerting the press that he was straying from his prepared script — to launch a shot across the bow at congressional Republicans who would not endorse his plan.

“If you’re a big oil company, they’ll go to bat for you,” he said. “If you’re a student, tough luck.”

But changing the subject only takes you so far. The student loan bill the president endorsed still fell. And on the day Boehner accused him of napping, he still had to explain why Iraq seems to be collapsing as the U.S. appears to watch from the sidelines.

President Obama said he wants to help but is not interested in sending “U.S. troops to play whack-a-mole” around the world to put down insurgencies.

That’s the White House’s reality. Boehner’s reality is that he has to form a new Capitol Hill leadership team at a time when voters are sending a series of clear messages that Washington is not their favorite flavor.

It can safely be said neither man had the best of weeks.