Boehner Succeeds in Switching Demands

Ezra Klein picks up on an important point in this morning’s Wonkbook:

Two issues led to the shutdown. One was defunding or delaying Obamacare. The other, as Sen. Ted Cruz put it, was “making D.C. listen.”

What’s been remarkable — and largely unnoticed — is that Republicans have abandoned both those demands.

What’s odder about the shutdown, though, is that Republicans have also abandoned their core policy demand. They’ve largely stopped talking about Obamacare. They’re begging simply for negotiations. Their latest plan, in fact, is for another budget commission:

The GOP’s play, announced by Cantor at the meeting, is to push for a bicameral commission that brought comparisons to the “supercommittee” from the 2011 Budget Control Act.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Paul Ryan articulates the emerging strategy. “To break the deadlock, both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code,” he writes. The word “Obamacare” never appears in the piece. Nor does any other reference to the president’s health-care law.

The Republican Party initially justified this shutdown and these tactics to itself by arguing that it was channeling the will of the people and justified by the dangers of Obamacare. But they’ve lost pubic opinion and realized Obamacare isn’t up for negotiation. But the loss of their original rationale for the shutdown hasn’t led them to reopen the government.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Boehner and Republican leaders first started by demanding the president defund or delay Obamacare. Speaker Boehner could not betray the Tea Party and split his party in half by bringing up a clean CR. Even if he had brought up a clean CR that also repealed the medical device tax, the Tea Party still would’ve been infuriated. It would’ve split the Republican party in half. This has clearly been the case all along and Boehner’s strategy has always been to slowly ratchet down GOP demands over time so that the Tea Party believes he fought for them. First it was defund Obamacare. Then it was delay Obamacare. After that it was delay the individual mandate. As Klein points out, GOP demands now have nothing to do with Obamacare.

Boehner knew all along Senate Democrats and Obama weren’t going to change the law. It was a non-starter. But he had to at least show his conservative members that he fought for them. Allowing a government shutdown to happen and drag out for a couple of weeks is a good way of showing them that.

His next step was to quietly switch demands from something unattainable to something possible. This was the toughest part as the Tea Party would revolt if it became clear he was giving up on their goal of stopping Obamacare. As Klein notes, this switch happened “largely unnoticed.” That’s a big victory for Boehner.

Now he still has to return to his party with some concession from the president. It doesn’t have to be much, but he can’t have chosen two major fiscal fights and return with nothing. He also must show that he fought as hard as he could – that means waiting until the last minute to make a deal. This is Boehner’s strategy in every one of these fights and it has succeeded repeatedly. In my first article defending Boehner, I wrote that his strategy is the following:

  1. Lie to his caucus, allow them to “take control” and make it seem as if disaster will strike
  2. Use that desperation to subtly change the conversation to the upcoming disaster and extract concessions from Democrats
  3. Go back to his caucus, say he got everything he could and convince them to vote to avoid the crisis at the last minute
  4. Keep his speakership by allowing himself to seem weak and extract some concessions
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat

Allowing the conservatives members to “take control” required shutting down the government this time. But the rest is unfolding exactly as I wrote. He lied to his caucus about stopping Obamacare, allowed them to “take control” and is now using that desperation to extract any type of concession from Democrats in return for opening up the government and raising the debt ceiling. He’ll then go back to his members, say he got everything he could and we’ll avoid a default. The Tea Party will be angry, but not quite angry enough to challenge his speakership. Lather, rinse, repeat. The hardest part was switching his party’s demands from stopping Obamacare to a fiscal concession. Now that he’s done that, the rest isn’t too difficult. It’ll just take until the 11th hour to play out.

Boehner’s Shutdown Strategy is Working Out Pretty Well

Democrats are still underestimating this man.
Democrats are still underestimating this man.

We’re into the second week of the government shutdown and rapidly approaching the debt ceiling deadline. Republicans are overwhelmingly taking the blame for the shutdown and still have no leverage in the negotiations. Democrats are still unified in their support for a clean continuing resolution. That doesn’t sound like a good situation for Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and his party, right? Wrong.

In fact, this shutdown has worked out pretty well for Boehner. He’s kept his party unified while slowly ramping down their demands. Liberals dismiss the importance of party unity too quickly. They have clamored for the past week that the speaker should bring a clean CR up in the House and allow a vote on it. Such a bill would likely pass (despite Boehner’s bizarre refutation of that yesterday) and the shutdown would end. But this ignores the political reality of the situation. Conservative Republicans would go crazy at such a move. They may try to challenge Boehner’s speakership. Club for Growth and other conservative organizations may immediately look to primary moderate Republicans who voted for the bill. If these outside groups didn’t have much power, then Boehner and moderate Republicans could ignore them. But they are powerful. They have money and an influential grassroots networks. The Tea Party can’t simply be brushed away as an inconvenience. This means that a clean CR is simply not an option. Liberals who call for Boehner to bring one to the floor are ignoring the political dynamics that exist in the Republican party.

Another positive for Boehner is that he has a successfully merged the government shutdown and debt ceiling fights. It quickly became apparent last week that any shutdown deal would have to raise the debt ceiling as well as there was not time for two fiscal fights. Yet, this is a huge win for the Republican Party. Whatever final deal that the parties work out, Republicans will be able to tell their constituents that they broke Obama’s promise not to negotiate on the debt limit. If Boehner had split his party in half and passed a clean CR, he would’ve faced a debt ceiling fight a few weeks later and Obama would have held firm on not negotiating. In the end, Boehner would have had to raise the debt ceiling without getting anything in return (or anything remotely substantial). He understands how catastrophic a default would be and would never have allowed it to happen. In order to show that he extracted concessions out of Obama for raising the debt ceiling, he had to combine that fight with the one over the budget. He has accomplished that as well.

The Republican party is also taking a political hit each day the shutdown continues, but it’s highly unlikely to threaten their majority in the House and that’s what really matters. It may make it more difficult for them to take back the Senate, but with Obama in office, a Republican Senate won’t accomplish anything anyways. Politically it might help them for the 2016 presidential election, but controlling both houses of Congress in 2014 won’t allow Republicans to accomplish much legislatively. If the shutdown truly risked their House majority, it would be a big deal, but it doesn’t. In addition, the piecemeal bills the House has passed to fund the politically toxic aspects of the shutdown have given Republicans a talking point they can use to deflect blame. The political consequences of this shutdown simply aren’t very large.

Part of that is because the shutdown is actually not that harmful. The negative economic effects are minimal, especially with half of the furloughed workers returning to work today and all of them receiving back pay for their missed work. In fact, 83% of government spending is happening as scheduled. That’s not to say that the other 17% is minimal. It isn’t. There are some truly terrible parts of this crisis – NIH patients not receiving cancer treatment and research ruined – but it’s a sad truth that the effects of the shutdown are limited. Most Americans aren’t feeling them and the national parks and monuments being closed – while frustrating and disappointing to many tourists – isn’t a big deal. The longer the shutdown continues, the more it will become a true crisis that requires an immediate solution. But it will likely be over in less than two weeks as both parties understand the need to find a solution before we breach the debt ceiling. The effects of a government shutdown from October 1st to October 17th aren’t that big.

Finally, Boehner may earn his party substantial policy concessions from Obama and Senate Democrats. If the speaker had listened to all those calling for a clean CR, he would’ve received the sequester level cuts and nothing else, including nothing in return for raising the debt ceiling. Now, he has already locked in sequestration and will receive something else for a combined deal on both the government shutdown and debt ceiling. That may be the repeal of the medical device tax, some larger deal with chained CPI or a mechanism to spur tax reform. Whatever it is, it’ll be more than he would’ve accomplished by passing a clean CR, all while keeping his party unified and limiting the negative political consequences of the shutdown. The Tea Party will likely be angry at the final deal as some are OK with breaching the debt limit, but Boehner and moderate Republicans can turn to them and say they did absolutely everything they could to fight Obama and Senate Democrats.

It’s easy for liberals to look at Boehner’s position and see a weak leader who has no strategy or endgame and is terrified of the Tea Party. That’s not an entirely wrong description, but it doesn’t mean he is ineffective and it ignores the fact that Boehner has accomplished quite a bit the past week. Once again, Democrats are underestimating him.