Can John Boehner Placate Randall Terry?

Amanda Marcotte

Why did soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner meet with anti-choice extremist amongst extremists Randall Terry? Was he simply trying to placate the man so that he doesn't act the fool?

Randall Terry isn’t just your everyday anti-choice nut.  It takes someone with a special level of nuttiness to get shunned by most of the anti-choice community, a community generally known for having a high tolerance for hysterics, attention-seeking, blatant lying, and quiet encouragement of violence against abortion providers.  If you’re such a nasty piece of work that even Jill Stanek and Troy Newman can’t stand you, you must be something else.

So why on earth did soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner actually conduct a meeting with Randall Terry and his cadre of extremists?  It’s understandable, if disappointing, that such a prominent politician would meet with anti-choice activists.  We still don’t live in an era where women’s human rights are above debate, and so it’s to be expected that some politicians will hold meetings based around the concept that women should be forced to bear children against their will.  But there are many dozens of anti-choice leaders Boehner could have held meetings with to establish his misogynist bona fides, and cozy up to the Christian right.  Why choose the worst of the worst, a man whose primary reputation on the right now is that of a self-aggrandizing blowhard who just screws everything up?

A few possibilities come to mind.  First, Boehner might just be ignorant of the battles within the anti-choice movement, and selected Terry for this anti-choice photo op because Terry is just so visible in D.C.  After all, Terry is forever making a spectacle of himself.  He’s hard to ignore.  To someone who only paid minimal attention to the anti-choice movement, it might seem like Terry is more of a leader than he really is.  But while incompetence can never completely be taken off the table as a reason that a politician makes a baffling mistake, it’s hard for me to imagine that Boehner and his people could be so ignorant of Terry’s place in the anti-choice world.  And if they were ignorant before, the fact that Terry did wacky stuff like put fetus dolls on the table during the discussion should have clued Boehner into the facts.

It’s also possible that Boehner is trying to signal that he’s hardcore when it comes to disrespecting women’s rights.  If you want to send that signal, you’re in good shape picking the worst of the worst of the anti-choice community.  But again, there are many people that are just as mean-spirited as Terry without being so hated within the larger anti-choice community.  Troy Newman, for instance, has just as much distaste for women’s rights and health as Terry, but he has a better reputation in the anti-choice world.  So that doesn’t really make sense. 

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There is another possibility, and that is that Boehner (or at least his people) are fully aware of exactly how over the top Terry is, and what a P.R. problem he creates for the anti-choice community.  Because Terry could be creating a similar problem for the Republican party as a whole, especially now that they’re aligning themselves more and more with the extreme anti-choice position.  And this meeting might actually be about containing Terry more than catering to him.

After all, Terry is right now a bigger threat to the reputation of the Republican party than he is to anything quaint like actual abortion rights.  Terry’s narcissism and his willingness to surround himself with people with exactly zero public relations skills means that he’s forever creating situations that make everyone involved—or even assumed to be involved—look bad.  After all, Terry was the campaign manager for Missy Smith, a Republican nominee that had no chance of winning in D.C. but who nonetheless managed to make herself an embarrassment to the Republican party by running graphic ads of fetuses that supposedly were aborted. (Though, to be clear, many of the pictures used by anti-choicers for these stunts are false or misrepresentative, at best.)  The only people who get anything out of the usual fetus pictures are anti-choice nuts who fetishize them.  Everyone else sees these pictures, and simply assumes the person waving them is an unserious person not worth speaking to.

Boehner didn’t get to be Speaker by being bad at politics.  He knows the bloody-fetus- picture-waving people give everyone associated with them a bad name.  I have no doubt he wants them to shut up and go away, and certainly not do as Terry has threatened, which is run more candidates as Republicans. 

Bringing someone threatening in for a meeting is a classic political maneuver to disarm them.  The idea is that by validating them, you remove the goal of getting your attention, and that serves to de-energize them going further.  It also makes it harder for them to objectify and hate you, and more likely to take your calls and do what you ask.  I imagine Boehner thought merely giving some time to Terry would placate Terry’s enormous ego needs.  He would be so busy showing off that he got the meeting that he wouldn’t have time to concoct other schemes.

If this was Boehner’s reasoning, however, I think it might backfire.  For one thing, Terry has declared that he doesn’t fall for those tricks.  More importantly, Terry has a very serious need to convince his audience that he’s in opposition to whoever is holding power in D.C., and it’s not just due to his endless need to get attention by whatever means he can.  It’s also financial. Terry’s ability to fund-raise depends largely on his benefactors being afraid they’re losing the war on women, and feeling like they have to fight back against the powers that be.  And he’s got almost as much need to fund-raise as he does to have people pay attention to him.  Somehow, I managed to get on his mailing list and I have never seen anyone send out as many fund-raising appeals as Terry.  Sometimes they get incredibly specific, asking for money for car repairs, housing, or food.  That money would slow down dramatically if his benefactors thought they had people in power that would do what they wanted.  So it’s in Terry’s interests to make them believe that the Republicans are just as much the enemy as the Democrats.

And that was the point he drove home in his email blitz after his meeting, stating, “Unless the Republicans do something concrete to save babies from murder, then they are collaborators with child killers, and we must treat them as such.”  As long as there are funds to be raised and attention to be garnered, I imagine this will be Terry’s stance with regards to Republicans

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