Take a Bow, Mr. Speaker

Speaker John Boehner
Speaker John Boehner

Last night, Congress passed the McConnell-Reid plan to reopen the government and avoid a default. It also includes an income verification requirement for Obamacare and sets up a bicameral committee that will attempt to come to a large budget deal by December 13th. In return for a 16 day government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship, Republicans received a cosmetic change in Obamacare that does nothing substantial.

It’s easy to look at that and lament the wasted time and needless suffering that was caused by it. It’s easy to wish that John Boehner had decided on September 30th to break the Hastert Rule and pass a clean continuing resolution and clean debt ceiling increase. It’s easy to look for blame and settle on the speaker. But it’s wrong.

It’s wrong, because it ignores the internal political dynamics that exists in the Republican House conference and it holds Boehner to a standard that no politician should be held to. If Boehner had brought to the floor a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill, he would’ve faced a revolt amongst his members. They would’ve lambasted him in the media and challenged his speakership. It would’ve been ugly.

But it wouldn’t end there. It would have created a deep fissure in the GOP. Anyone who voted for those bills would’ve faced a primary challenge. It would’ve pitted any conservative in favor of a quick retreat against those wanting to fight. The Tea Party would have gone to war against the establishment. It would eliminate any chance that the House could pass legislation until 2015. It would also put the Republican House majority in jeopardy. Imagine a year of Republican-on-Republican attacks, nasty primaries and voters choosing to stay home. This is what journalists are asking Boehner to do when they ask him to cut the Tea Party loose. They are asking him to tear his party in half.

For Boehner, this was never about defunding Obamacare or extracting policy concessions from the White House. He knew the first was never going to happen and the second was highly unlikely. The White House was looking to end debt-ceiling hostage taking and wasn’t going to negotiate. Boehner wasn’t going to let the U.S. default so he always knew he was going to surrender.

Instead, this was all about party unity. The longer Boehner postponed the day of surrender, the more he could keep his conference unified. The Tea Party can’t survive without the Republican Party and the Republican Party can’t survive without the Tea Party. Over time, the extreme tactics of the Tea Party may disappear as the political and policy consequences of their actions slowly build, but that take elections. It takes establishment candidates defeating Tea Party candidates in primaries. A Republican civil war reduces the power of both. It’s easy to see why liberals would love that outcome – it would give Democrats immense control of the legislative process. But it would be terrible for the Republican party.

This is political dynamic that John Boehner has to deal with. He must lead members that vary widely across the conservative political spectrum, who are overeager to make an impact and are willing to use extreme tactics to get what they want. He must deal with a newly invigorated grassroots base that attempts to undermine and replace him at every turn. And he faces all of this in a time when the speakership has fewer powers than ever before.

The past three weeks were his greatest challenge. He had to build up as much credibility with the Tea Party as he possibly could, knowing he would have no choice but to betray them in the end. That meant listening to them and letting them guide his actions. His strategy was to do whatever the Tea Party wanted. His moderate members were always going to support him and have his back when the debt ceiling vote came. The right-wingers were the ones he had to court.

After the deal last night, the results are in: His strategy was a huge success.

His members gave him a standing ovation during their conference meeting Wednesday – the same meeting where he announced that he was surrendering. One supporter of the #DefundObamacare movement said that Boehner’s speakership is “more secure than ever.” Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the most conservative members of the House, said he’s “really proud of Speaker Boehner.” Another hard-line conservative, Rep. Phil Gingrey, said yesterday “Speaker Boehner’s got more courage in his little finger than most of us do in our entire bodies.” These are the same members who would have challenged his speakership if he attempted to pass a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill.

This is Boehner’s greatest accomplishment. He kept his party unified in the face of overwhelming odds. The fact that they split on the vote yesterday is meaningless. The Republican House stands as one, even if it doesn’t always vote that way. Anyone who thinks this was an easy feat for the speaker hasn’t been watching the internal dynamics of the Republican conference. John Boehner has the toughest job in politics and he’s performed it masterfully.

Take a bow, Mr. Speaker.

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Boehner Can’t Betray The Tea Party

Salon’s Brian Beutler is out with an article this morning advising House Speaker John Boehner to give up waging repeated fights over the government budget and debt ceiling and instead agree to fund both for a lengthy period of a time. These fights do nothing, but divide the Republican party and hurt its imagine nationally. So, Beutler’s logical advice to the Speaker is to no longer pass stopgap fixes and get them off his plate until at least the midterm elections.

This makes a lot of sense on political grounds for the Republican party. The GOP wouldn’t have to revisit every few months whether they’re going to bankrupt the government or allow it to default, both political losers for the party. As for the country, these nasty fights unnecessarily hold back the economy and crowd out other important Congressional legislation such as immigration and tax reform.

The problem with Beutler’s strategy is that it would probably cost Boehner his speakership. Beutler says that if Boehner is worried about this, he could make a deal with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that Democrats will support him if he’s challenged by his conservative base.

Speaker Boehner has no good options.
Speaker Boehner has no good options.

But this doesn’t actually accomplish much for the Speaker. He keeps his title while losing all of his power.

If the Speaker faces a rebellion from within his ranks and turns to Pelosi for help, it effectively makes her de-facto Speaker. As we’ve seen repeatedly, Tea Party Republicans aren’t going to sit idly by while the Speaker betrays their most deeply held interests: cutting government spending and defunding Obamacare. In reality, the House doesn’t have a chance of accomplishing either of those, but House Republicans don’t live in reality. They will see Boehner’s betrayal not as a practical solution to improve the image of the party, but as a validation of their not-to-secret belief that the Speaker is a RINO. And they won’t accept that.

Whoever rises up to challenge Boehner for his speakership – whether it be the Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, or someone well outside Republican leadership such as Justin Amash – will have the support from Tea Party groups around the country and many members of the Republican caucus. If Democrats come to Boehner’s aid and save his speakership, the Tea Party will not simply give up the fight. The Tea Party doesn’t give up fights, even ones they’ve lost repeatedly (see, Obamacare). They will continue to fight against everything Boehner does, if just to send a message to future speakers that the Tea Party is not to be messed with.

If Boehner hopes to accomplish anything else in this Congress, it will require large Democratic support and it will be up to Pelosi to provide that support. Anything Boehner wants to pass, he’ll have to run by the Minority Leader to see if she can whip the votes for it. That gives Pelosi all the power. That’s great for Democrats, but horrible for Republicans and even worse for Boehner. He’ll have no power in Congress and a Republican base that will never forgive him. That’s not a strategy the Speaker should pursue.