Boehner’s Weakness Doesn’t Make Him Ineffective

John Boehner has not been a mean machine as speaker.
John Boehner has not been a mean machine as speaker.

One of the most common adjectives used to describe Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is weak. A quick google search will find you numerous examples of different pundits from both sides of the aisle criticizing Boehner for not having control of his caucus. The problem is that all of these pundits are conflating “weakness” with “ineffectiveness.” Boehner is a weak speaker, but that doesn’t make him ineffective. On the contrary, a weak speaker is exactly what Republicans need right now.

To understand this, imagine the counterfactual where Boehner is a strong speaker, ruling his caucus with an iron grip and dealing out strict punishments for breaking ranks within the party. Disloyal members receive crappy committee assignments and no money from the party in their next campaign. How do you imagine this would play out with the far right? Do you think they would fall in line and become loyal soldiers? Of course not! These members believe they were sent to Washington to stop “business as usual.” The more that they buck the party, the more that they believe they are listening to their constituents. Being ostracized from is a great way to attract conservative donors and produces great talking points in a potential primary. These members take great pleasure in defying him and it’s often good politics for them to do so.

This mindset has eliminated all of Boehner’s weapons. That doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have still punished disloyal members, but that would have created an even deeper divide within the GOP. It would’ve openly and publicly pitted Boehner and the House leadership versus a small, but substantial and vocal group of Republican Congressmen. It would have been a mess for the party. FreedomWorks and Club for Growth would almost certainly have sided with the intransigents and Boehner would have likely had to turn to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for support to keep his speakership.

That’s what would’ve happened if Boehner attempted to be a strong speaker. The House would have accomplished as little as it has today and budget battles would have been even more intense with a full-out civil war in the Republican party undermining trust and disrupting any negotiations. A battle over who would be speaker would have complicated things as well.

Instead, Boehner has chosen to be weak. It’s pretty clear that Boehner would have failed mightily if he had attempted to be a strong speaker, but that doesn’t mean the choice was easy. The media coverage Boehner has received has been almost universally negative. Being weak has meant being ineffective. But all of that coverage fails to take into account the larger political context that Boehner is working within. Nevertheless, Boehner has accepted it all and continued to balance the crazy demands of hard-line conservatives with the political reality that Americans blame the Republican party for these fiscal crises. On top of that, he knows that each of these crises is damaging the economy and reduces American confidence in their elected officials. It’s an almost impossible situation to deal with, but Boehner has navigated it so far by allowing himself to be weak. Don’t confuse that with him being ineffective and don’t ignore the larger realities of our current political system. It’s unfair to judge him by doing so.

John Boehner is a Genius

Turn the clock back a year. It’s the middle of the 2012 election and I tell you that President Obama will win a second term commandingly, Republicans will hold the House and Democrats will keep the Senate. On December 31, the Bush tax cuts expire and sequestration takes effect. Soon after that, we’ll hit the debt ceiling. President Obama also campaigned on raising taxes for those with incomes over $250,000, refuses to negotiate on the debt ceiling and everyone hates sequestration. Oh, and the Republican party will swing even further to the right in the aftermath of the election with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell facing a primary challenge and Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) becoming leaders of the party. Over the next 12 months, what do you think the course of economic and tax policy will be?

Here would’ve been my guess:

  • Taxes raised for all those with incomes over $250,000
  • Capital gains and dividends taxed at a much higher rate, if not as ordinary income
  • Estate tax rises back to 40%
  • Payroll tax cut extension
  • Sequestration is rolled back with limited if any replacement cuts
  • Debt ceiling raised without a fight

Here’s where we may be at in just a couple of days:

  • Taxes raised for individuals with incomes over $400,000 and families over $450,000
  • Capital gains and dividends taxed at 20% (rising from 15%)
  • Estate tax rises back to 40%
  • No payroll tax cut extension
  • Sequestration is on the brink of becoming permanent
  • Debt ceiling is shaping up to be a major fight

That’s a lot of victories for Republicans and it’s in large part due to John Boehner. He has repeatedly out negotiated President Obama because he and his caucus seem more willing to break through the fiscal cliff, shutdown the government and default on our debt. In fact, Boehner is not willing to do any of those things more than Democrats are. He brokered a last second fiscal cliff deal that was a pretty big victory for Republicans under the circumstances (only raised taxes on individual income over $400,000). Over the current continuing resolution battle, Boehner is now hoping his caucus will give up their desperate demand to defund Obamacare and pass a clean CR. It’s looking like we could be heading for a government shutdown – the least damaging of all the potential fiscal crises, but damaging nonetheless. In the end though, this will likely be a huge victory for Republicans, even if they don’t treat it as such! Sequestration will stay in effect and while many Republicans don’t like the defense cuts, they are more than happy with the other cuts to discretionary spending. By changing the conversation to focus on defunding Obamacare, Boehner and his colleagues have made sequestration permanent. The upcoming debt ceiling battle is a place where Republicans have leverage. They know the President doesn’t want to breach it – even if he said he won’t negotiate – and Americans want there to be a negotiation. How this shapes up is anyone’s guess, but Boehner has put his caucus in an excellent shape.

Of course, not all of this is Boehner’s doing. A lot of times, he’s gone with the flow and benefited thanks to the credible threats of his right flank to do crazy things. He’s had trouble passing a farm bill and immigration reform doesn’t have a chance in the House. But nothing was going to happen no matter who was speaker. In addition, despite repeatedly promising Tea Party Republicans that they would take on Obamacare and find a way to stop it, he has convinced them to back off and move to the next battle. Most importantly, he’s done so without losing his speakership. I expect he’ll do the same with the debt ceiling since Boehner knows we can’t breach it. But it’s going to be very hard for the President not to negotiate it all. If Boehner extracts any concessions from him, it will be a monumental victory.

So while everyone is saying that John Boehner is irresponsible and has lost control, I think he’s a genius. A lot of the time, he’s going with the flow of his caucus. But he’s also used their craziness as leverage to extract meaningful concession from President Obama and Senate Democrats. At the same time, he’s avoided any fiscal disaster while keeping his speakership. I still hold out hope that he’s going to find a way around a government shutdown. He may not have an exact plan, but he has a strategy:

  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

It’s worked over and over again and allowed Republicans to swing policy to the right in situations where they have zero leverage. Boehner has stopped the base from causing a fiscal crisis and still kept his speakership. Call him irresponsible. Call him crazy. Call him reckless. Call him whatever you want, but John Boehner has been a brilliant speaker for the Republican Party and Democrats have underestimated him for far too long.

A New Proposal for Syria

Here’s an idea for a way the President and Congress could enforce its red line over Syria using chemical weapons without actually lobbing cruise missiles at Damascus: Congress could pass a bill authorizing President Obama to use force against Assad if he uses chemical weapons again. The goal here is to enforce the red line without actually enforcing it. It’s tough to accomplish, but it’s doable.

Let’s start by stipulating that the Administration’s goal right now is to deter Assad or any other ruler from ever using chemical weapons again. The question, then, is what is the best way to accomplish that while also looking out for our national security?

Obama has decided that only a forceful response will demonstrate to Assad that he meant it when he said chemical weapons use was a red line. But the military strategy the President has proposed was described by Secretary of State John Kerry as “unbelievably small” and would likely inflict limited damage on Assad’s capabilities. The strike would be more symbolic than anything else.

There are no good options on Syria.
There are no good options on Syria.

The problem is that this attack has many risks and limited upside. Shooting a couple of missiles a Syria will do little to convince Assad that the United States is ready to inflict serious harm upon him if he uses chemical weapons again. The widespread disapproval of a war against Assad demonstrates this clearly. In addition, Assad could respond to such an attack with a disproportionate use of force, such as by attacking Israel, or by using chemical weapons yet again, challenging the U.S. to respond with greater military strength. Escalation is a distinct possibility. Is it worth risking destabilizing the region and possibly drawing the United State into another war in the Middle East to send a weak message?

At the same time, doing nothing indicates to Assad that his use of chemical weapons has no consequences. It’s a dangerous message to send. The Syrian leader could begin gassing his people on a wider scale, under the expectation that the U.S. will respond weakly or not at all. Since Congress has been so resistant to responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons this time, it’s not unrealistic to think they will respond weakly to another attack as well. That’s a situation we desperately want to avoid.

As the President and Congressmen have said repeatedly, there are no good options here.

But what if Congress authorizes the President to use force in the case of another chemical weapons attack? There would have to be language in such a bill that outlined the criteria to evaluate whether chemical weapons were used and whether the Syrian government used them. It will be tricky to craft, but a combination of UN investigators (or the lack of Syrian support for them) plus government intelligence should be enough. In addition, the bill should strictly restrict the military options the President can use. It shouldn’t allow boots on the ground, for instance.

This accomplishes two things:

  1. The U.S. does not have to use force right now. The vast majority of Americans and Congress don’t want to use force. The risks are simply too high and benefits too low. By passing an AUMF for a future chemical weapons attack, it makes sure we do not use force right now.
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  2. At the same time, it deters Assad from using chemical weapons again. It’s not the strongest form of deterrence, as it still informs Assad that the consequence of him using chemical weapons will be limited in scope. But it is much more of a deterrent than doing nothing. Obama should also make clear that he will go back to Congress for the authorization to use greater military force if he deems Assad’s transgression consequential enough to require a stronger U.S. response.

Is this a weak response? Absolutely. But every response being contemplated is weak.

Here’s a pessimistic scenario: let’s say such a bill is passed and Assad takes it to mean that he can gas a number of Syrian civilians and expect a limited response. He goes ahead and does so and the President responds by following through on the AUMF. He goes back to Congress to ask for more military options, but is shot down again, confirming Assad’s belief that the U.S. doesn’t want to get too involved in Syria. That’s a bad outcome.

But look at how that scenario plays out if we do nothing now: Assad sees no U.S. response and believes that America will not respond (or will respond weakly) if he gasses his civilians again. Now, Obama asks Congress for the right to use military force. Maybe they give it to him now, but at best it restricts him to limited strikes anyways. If the U.S. doesn’t respond this time, it signals to Assad clearly that the U.S. is a paper tiger over chemical weapons use. That’s a huge risk. Passing the bill I’ve proposed at least eliminates this possibility.

And what about if we strike Syria now? Well that certainly acts as a greater deterrent to Assad, but as I’ve already noted, the risks involved in this are too high to go through with it.

This is a way to credibly deter Assad without the risks of using force. Assad will know with certainty that if he uses chemical weapons again, Obama will respond with military force. That may not be a strong enough deterrent, but it’s better than nothing in a world where there are no good options.