“Go Out There and Win an Election”

Those were the words President Obama directed towards the Republican Party today as he further emphasized that this was the end of debt-ceiling hostage-taking. If the Republican Party doesn’t like the president or his policies, it should take its message to the American people and win elections. It’s a simple argument and it also applies to moderate Republicans. If they want to take back their party, win elections. Defeat Tea Party candidates in primaries.

Liberals are hopeful that this complete and utter defeat of the Republican Party in the debt-ceiling battle will lead to a change of GOP strategy. The theory goes that the Tea Party will see that its extreme tactics don’t work and will look for more practical methods to fight the president. This is highly unlikely to happen.

Boehner did an excellent job keeping his members unified, but grassroots organizations around the country have had about enough. Molly Ball has a great story today about how many conservative activists are ready to leave the GOP and want to primary every Republican who voted for the bill. Their belief is that Republican tactics didn’t fail, their leadership did. For the moment, there’s a gap between the opinions of these activists and the Tea Party members in Congress. These congressmen had nothing, but positive things to say about the speaker yesterday while Eric Erickson, Rush Limbaugh and other notable conservatives weren’t so kind. That gap will disappear soon enough as those congressmen look to stay on the good side of Erickson and Co.

Many reform conservatives were appalled with the Tea Party’s tactics. Ross Douthat hopes this was a learning exercise for the party so that it won’t “pull this kind of stunt again.” David Frum is ready for the Tea Party to exit altogether. He’s not alone in that opinion.

But Boehner and Republican leaders know that as much as they want to do that, they can’t. Whether they like it or not, the Republican Party needs the Tea Party as much as they need the moderates. They are listening to the Tea Party and not the moderates, because the Tea Party has no problem declaring war on the establishment and jumping ship. That may be electoral suicide, but the right wing doesn’t fear those consequences. The moderates do. It’s the same reason the hard-liners didn’t fear the political consequences of a futile government shutdown or the economic consequences of breaching the debt ceiling. It’s a game of chicken between the moderates and radicals. Whoever is willing to ditch the party and cause electoral defeat for both has control. Right now, that’s the Tea Party.

That’s why Boehner can’t simply cast aside his conservative members. It’s why he must do everything in his power to keep them happy and listen to them.

The way moderates take back the party is not through a civil war, but by defeating them in elections. As these extreme tactics fail, the moderate Republicans will earn more support from the marginal Tea Party voter. Slowly, they will win back their trust. This won’t be an overnight change. It will take at least the 2014 election cycle, probably longer and there’s nothing either party can do to speed it along. It’s deeply frustrating for Democrats to look across the aisle and see a party held captive by a small fraction of extreme members. For Republicans, it’s even more frustrating to be the ones held captive by those members. But casting aside those members in a nasty civil war will be political suicide for both the establishment and the Tea Party. The best thing moderate Republicans can do is win elections.

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.